Adolf Hitler lived in several places during his childhood, due to his father Alois’ job in the Austrian Customs Service. In 1898, at the age of nine, Hitler and his family arrived in Leonding, a small town that today is practically a suburb of the Upper Austrian city of Linz.
Alois Hitler was by now retired after forty years of service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but his attempt to farm at Lambach had ended in failure, hence the move to Leonding. This period was also marked by violent arguments between Alois and his oldest surviving son Adolf.
Alois purchased No. 16 Michaelsbergstrasse, a small, two-storey brick structure opposite the entrance to St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. Both structures survive intact today. Adolf Hitler was a choirboy in the church and regularly attended mass.
The Hitler house, Leonding. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
The view of St. Michael’s Church from the Hitler house front door. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
It was in this house in 1900 that Hitler’s younger brother Edmund died from measles, an event that effected Adolf severely and turned him into a deeply morose and withdrawn boy.
Hitler aged 11 at school in Leonding
His detachment was further deepened by his father’s unwillingness to permit him to follow his dream of being an artist, and in September 1900 Alois enrolled him in the Realschule in Linz. Hitler’s father wanted Adolf to follow his footsteps into the Customs Service, an idea that repelled Adolf.
The side of the Hitler house. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Adolf deliberately did badly at school in the hope that his father would transfer him to a classical high school, and the two had many heated and violent arguments. This impasse ended suddenly on 3 January 1903 when Alois Hitler suddenly dropped dead in a local Leonding pub. Adolf’s schoolwork deteriorated further until his doting mother Klara removed him from the institution. The family left Leonding for Steyr where Hitler’s grades improved at a new school.
The front door of the Hitler house. The doors and window frames all appeared to be original. Hitler would have passed through this door daily to school or church. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
The rear of the Hitler house in Leonding. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Leonding was not quite done with the Hitler’s. Alois had been buried in St. Michael’s churchyard, and in December 1907 Klara Hitler succumbed to breast cancer. She was buried with her husband in Leonding on Christmas Eve 1907, with Hitler at the funeral.
View of the Hitler house from St. Michael’s Church. Young Hitler walked this way to sing in the church choir and to attend mass. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
Hitler returned again to Leonding under radically different circumstances on 12 March 1938, this time behind his army that was sweeping into Austria to complete the Anschluss.
Hitler paid his respects at his parents’ grave and also visited his childhood home, which became a place of Nazi pilgrimage.
Hitler visits his parents’ grave in 1938
A similar view in 2017. Hitler’s parents grave lies to the left of the photo, slightly out of shot. Copyright Mark Felton 2017
After 1945, the house was allowed to fall into disrepair until it was partially renovated and today is used to store empty coffins to the graveyard across the road. Hitler’s parents grave was clearly marked with their names and photographs until 2012, when the Church removed their headstone and remodelled the grave in an attempt to hide its existence from curious visitors.
‘An extraordinary, and largely forgotten, wartime story — brought back to life in this Boys’ Own account’ – Daily Mail
My thrilling new escape adventure CASTLE OF THE EAGLES is available in all good bookshops!
A dozen eccentric middle-aged British generals pulling off some of the most daring and amazing escapes of the war – a story so fresh and fascinating that Hollywood came for the movie rights before I even finished writing the book!
Vincigliata Castle, a menacing medieval fortress set in the beautiful Tuscan hills above Florence, has been turned into a very special prisoner of war camp on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s personal order. Perched high on a hill, the forbidding building holds 13 of the most senior British and Commonwealth officers captured during the campaigns in North Africa and Crete.
The 13 consist of an air marshal, twelve generals and brigadiers along with 11 aides and batmen. They are guarded by almost 200 Italian soldiers under the command of a hardened fascist answerable directly to Mussolini. It is imperative that some of these famous generals manage to get back into the war as soon as possible. The prisoners include the British commander in Egypt, the deputy commander of the RAF in the Middle East, the commander in Libya, and the general commanding the 2nd Armoured Division.
Campo 12, as the Italians call Vincigliata Castle, is considered escape proof, an Italian Colditz. But the Italians have not counted on the bravery, ingenuity and barefaced pluck of their illustrious prisoners. After several false starts, an extraordinary assemblage of middle-aged POWs hatches a complex escape plan. Short of food and facing almost insuperable challenges in finding escape materials, the prisoners, regardless of rank or age, all work together to drive a complex tunnel beneath the castle through its foundations and solid bedrock. It is a task that takes them six arduous and dangerous months to complete.
By March 1943 the tunnel is ready. The potential escapers have also spent months making civilian clothes, forging identity papers, gathering rations and even constructing elaborate human dummies to place in their beds to fool the guards during their nighttime inspections after they have escaped. It is decided that six men will attempt the impossible, forming three 2-man teams. One escaper is an air marshal, three are brigadiers, and two are lieutenant-generals, probably the unlikeliest collection of would-be prison breakers in history. Three of them are knights of the realm and two have won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry. One is handicapped by a missing hand and eye, another by a gammy hip. The youngest is 48, the oldest 63.
During a dark and rain swept night, the three teams burst out of the earth below the castle and slip away, all intent on reaching neutral Switzerland. What follows are extraordinary adventures as the escapers go on the run inside Italy. Will any of them make to freedom?
Castle of the Eagles, written from official documents and personal memoirs, tells the thrilling full story of the extraordinary escape of the generals from Mussolini’s Colditz for the first time, a forgotten but almost unbelievable tale of courage and daring by the unlikeliest group of escapers in World War II.
Many people mistakenly believe that the famed Eagle’s Nest high up on Kehlstein Mountain overlooking Hitler’s mountain top hideaway on the Obersalzberg was his favourite tea house. The building survives perfectly intact today, and attracts over 200,000 tourists annually. But there is a reason for its survival.
Hitler hated it! Martin Bormann poured huge sums of money and time into its construction but ultimately Hitler was afraid of the altitude, the snaking road up and the elaborate lift that took visitors the final 400 feet through solid mountain to the summit. He only visited the place around ten times. For this reason, the building is perhaps less tainted by association with Hitler than the structures on the Obersalzberg, and was spared postwar demolition.
Hitler did have a favourite tea house, again another present from Bormann, but this time constructed at a lower altitude just a short walk from his palatial Berghof home and military headquarters. History has not been kind to this building, Hitler’s constant daily patronage ensuring that the US Army demolished it in the early 1950s and the Bavarian Government made further attempts to eradicate its footprint in the 2000s. However, much survives for those prepared to hike to the spot and root around a bit using one’s imagination and old photographs.
Hitler would visit the Mooslahnerkopf Teehaus almost every afternoon during his stays at the Berghof. It was a home from home for Hitler and his entourage and pandered to Hitler’s rather indolent home life with Eva Braun and his cronies.
Each afternoon around 3pm Hitler, members of his close circle and a small number of his RSD bodyguards would cross the road in front of the Berghof and enter a path than ran past the Unterwurflehen (Obersalzberg Administration Building) then stroll downhill through the Obersalzberg Valley and onto a path through the woods.
The ruins of the Unterwurflehen Building
The woodland path towards the Mooslahnerkopf
As his party entered the woods they would pass by SS guard bunkers for the sentries that monitored a discreet chain link fence below the path before arriving at the Mooslahnerkopf Hill and its tea house. Hitler hated being overtly guarded, so the sentries would most likely have not been seen.
A Moll Bunker or Splinter Protection Cell. These one-man bunkers were spaced out all over the Obersalzberg area. This one I photographed close to the tea house. It was designed to provide a sentry with cover in the event of an air raid, not to fight from.
The walk was less than a kilometre. The circular teahouse had been designed by architect Roderich Fick, who had remodelled the Haus Wachenfeld into the grand Berghof, on the orders of Martin Bormann as yet another gift for Hitler, as the ‘brown eminence’ sought to curry favour with his leader.
Designed in 1936, the building was completed the following year, and Bormann was rewarded by Hitler’s near constant patronage of the establishment whenever he was in residence on the Obersalzberg until early 1944.
The main part of the tea house was cylindrical in design, measuring 9 metres in diameter, with three large picture windows looking out over the valley beyond. The building was built onto the side of Mooslahnerkopf Hill and was accessed by a flight of steps up to a large door giving access to the main room.
The main room was dominated a large round table around which were arranged comfortable armchairs.
Hitler and Eva Braun. Unlike Hitler, Braun also regularly used the Eagle’s Nest for taking tea or holding parties
Hitler and Maria Reiter, rumoured to have been an old girlfriend, inside the circular room. This film still allows us a glimpse of the colours used to decorate the tea house
Other seating areas were located around the walls. A kitchen and staff area occupied the rest of the building. As with the Berghof and Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest), Hitler’s monogrammed silver service and cutlery was used by the SS waiters.
In front of the tea house was a scenic overlook of the Salzburg Basin, enclosed by a wooden railing and with a bench where the Führer often sat and discussed matters of state with his intimates. From the railing Hitler could look at Austria, his homeland, Salzburg Castle poking up through a break in the line of mountains in the far distance.
Mark at the Mooslahnerkopf Overlook. The railing was replaced by a German film company in 2004 and is higher than the original.
Hitler and his Alsation Blondi at the Overlook
The scenic overlook survives virtually intact while the tea house behind has been largely erased
The original bench that Hitler used is long gone. A modern replacement has been installed in the exact spot.
In this photo you can gain some idea of the luxurious interior and the height on the main circular room.
Hitler often fell asleep at the Mooslahnerkopf and was always driven back to the Berghof in an ordinary Volkswagen rather than one of his enormous armoured Mercedes, while the rest of his intimates strolled back on foot in the late afternoon.
The building survived the British bombing attack of 25 April 1945 that obliterated or severely damaged many of the Nazi structures on the Obersalzberg. In 1951-52 the US Army ordered its destruction, and it was partially demolished, leaving just the service areas and basement intact.
Mooslahnerkopf Tea House remains. (Copyright Hans J.S.C. Jongstra)
Then in August 2006 the basement level was torn out and removed, leaving only the building’s foundation and some stairs remaining today
Steps (above and below) in front of the vanished building that led down to the overlook area
The hillside where the tea house once stood. Note the same stand of trees on the left in both photos.
Chief Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita, the first man to bomb the United States from the air
How to bring the war to America was a question that the Japanese High Command gave considerable thought to between 1941 and 1945. Shore bombardment was tried, using surfaced Japanese submarines off the coast of California and British Columbia. Its effects were minimal. Tiny submarine launched spotter planes launched incendiary raids on the forest of the Pacific Northwest, again with little effect for a lot of effort. A massive effort was required to transport one very small aircraft across the Pacific on board a valuable submarine, to drop a tiny amount of bombs onto no specific target. At best it would have proved a propaganda coup had the United States authorities realized that Japan had successfully attacked the mainland, but no such media coverage was afforded.
Another munitions delivery system was required, and this time the Japanese decided upon an unmanned and ultra-cheap option: the paper balloon.
Once again, the Japanese required the initial utilization of their submarine force to attack the United States, and in 1943 two hundred balloons were prepared, to be launched from two modified submarines, the I-34 and I-35. Each balloon had a twenty-foot envelope, and a range of more than 600 miles. Although the operation was fully prepared by August 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy realized that employing submarines on such missions would not have been a sensible use of their potential, especially as the war had long since begun to deteriorate for Japan. The project was shelved, and balloon bomb research and the Imperial Japanese Army continued development instead. The army lacked the means to launch balloons from a mid-point between Japan and the United States, so the new weapons had to be designed to depart from the Japanese homeland itself.
The army balloon-bomb project was codenamed ‘FUGO’ (Windship Weapon), and the army designers at the 9th Military Technical Research Institute under Major-General Sueyoshi Kusaba, in cooperation with scientists of the Central Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo, produced a balloon design, designated the Type-A (not to be confused with the navy’s Type-A midget submarine), made of sixty-four laminated mulberry tree paper gores (sections forming the curved surface of the balloon). This was glued together with a form of potato paste forming a balloon envelope with a 100-foot circumference. The envelope was then filled with 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to provide the necessary high ceiling the weapon required. Below the envelope was suspended a woven dural ring with bombs and thirty-six ballast sandbags attached, controlled by three aneroid barometers and a C (small) battery mounted on a platform above which controlled a circuit to maintain altitude, and release the bombs.
Each balloon carried a payload of two 11-pound thermalite incendiary bombs, and one 33-pound anti-personnel fragmentation bomb. The Japanese called the new weapon fusen bakudan or ‘fire bombs’. Launch sites were located on the east coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, at Otsu, Ichinomiryu and Nakaso.
Once released, the balloons were uncontrollable, and carried to the North American continent at the behest of wind currents, cruising in the jet stream at around 20-40,000 feet. To maintain altitude, sand was automatically released from the ballast bags if the balloon began to sink. In the daytime the balloon would cruise at maximum altitude, but at night the envelope would collect dew, and sink as it became heavier. The altimeter would cause a set of blow plugs to fire, releasing sandbag ballast, restoring the balloon’s altitude. When all the sand was gone the bombs would become the final ballast, they being released automatically – an event calculated to occur over the mainland United States. Finally, a picric acid block would explode, destroying the balloon gondola; with a fuse being lit that was connected to a charge on the balloon itself. The resultant mixture of hydrogen, air and explosives would cause the balloon envelope to burn up as a large orange fireball. The balloons were extremely difficult to spot from the ground, because they cruised at such a high altitude, and most American fighter aircraft of the period could not reach them.
Diagram: Newcastle University
The first balloon launch occurred on 3 November 1944, with a US Navy patrol boat discovering a balloon floating in the sea sixty-six miles off San Pedro, California on 5 November. The first known successful attack on the United States occurred on 6 December 1944, bombs being dropped around twelve miles southwest of Owl Creek Mountain, close to Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Fragments of balloon envelopes and gondolas were discovered in Alaska and Montana, and forensic tests confirmed the wreckage to be of Japanese origin. The question was, how were the Japanese delivering the weapons to the United States? The people of the United States were not informed of the attacks, and the media was ordered not to report this alarming development. The United States also developed counter-measures to deal with this unique threat, codenamed ‘Operation Firefly.’ The US 4th Air Force gathered fighter squadrons to shoot down the balloons before they could release their payload, and many were downed over the Aleutian Islands before they could reach their targets as they sank to lower altitudes. One was shot down over Oregon. There was a fear among the American authorities that the Japanese could have used the balloons to deliver chemical and biological warfare agents to the United States, and to counter any such threat stocks of decontamination chemicals were quietly distributed to the western states, and farmers were asked to report any strange crop markings or animal infections that occurred. Although the United States authorities played down the potential damage that balloon bombs could wreak, Lyle Watts of the Agricultural Department commenting in June 1945 that, “…the forest service was “less worried about this Japanese balloon attack than we are with matches and smokes in the hands of good Americans hiking and camping in the woods,”” a US Army unit, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (nicknamed the ‘Triple Nickle’ because of their unit number) was trained to act as fire jumpers should the incendiary bombs set the forests ablaze.
Of the 9,300 balloons launched from Japan, only 212 were confirmed as having arrived in the United States and Mexico, landing as far east in the United States as Michigan, and a further seventy-three were confirmed coming down in Canada. The only fatalities caused by balloon bombs occurred on 5 May 1945, on Gearhart Mountain, near Bly, Oregon. A picnicking party of one adult and five children were killed instantly when they dragged an unexploded Imperial Japanese Navy 15-kg anti-personnel bomb out of the woods – these six people are the only known fatalities caused by enemy action on mainland United States during the Second World War.
It is not known whether any of the balloon bombs started forest fires, as was intended. In April 1945, the Japanese ceased their balloon launches, largely because of the American media blackout that had told them nothing about the success or failure of the campaign. What remains certain, however, is the fact that many of the bombs remain unaccounted for, and after over seventy years of deterioration could pose a serious risk to anyone who discovered one of these strange relics in the American countryside today.
A still live Japanese aerial bomb from a balloon discovered stuck in the ground near Lumby, Canada in October 2014. Photo: Infonews.ca
Proof of this claim was graphically demonstrated in Canada in 2014, when the remains of a balloon bomb’s gondola, including still live ordnance, was discovered near the town of Lumby. For more on this story, visit: http://infotel.ca/newsitem/unexploded-wwii-japanese-balloon-bomb-found-near-lumby/it13681
The ‘Wolf’s Lair’ conjures up images of danger, of hidden menace, of evil power. It was named by Hitler himself, playing on his own preoccupations with the wolf as metaphor for himself. Hidden beneath a canopy of fir trees, in the summer the complex of huge above ground concrete bunkers and net covered walkways was alive with the buzzing of mosquitos that thrived in the humid and unheathy local conditions. During the winter the forest was silent and heavily snow laden, the surrounding lakes frozen solid in the bitter cold.
The Wolf’s Lair was very well-named, hidden as it was deep in the gloomy East Prussian forest 5 miles (8km) east of Rastenburg (now Ketrzyn, Poland) and it was here that Hitler would spent most of the war, over 800 days in total, directing the monumental fight against the Soviet Union.
The site chosen by Dr. Fritz Todt was codenamed initially Anlage Nord (Installation North); it eventually became known as the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair). A one-track railway and a road ran through the Wolf’s Lair connecting the town of Rastenburg with Angerburg and Lotzen where other headquarters staffs were located.
The Wolf’s Lair complex, initially a collection of concrete bunkers and wooden huts, was in the middle of a dense fir forest and the complex covered 2.5 square miles (6.475 square km) and was divided into three security zones, or Sperrkreise. Where trees were felled to create space for buildings, artificial trees and camouflage netting was installed to maintain a continuous tree canopy. A company from Stuttgart was brought in to disguise the buildings, planting bushes, grass and artificial trees on the flat roofs. Roads were also partly disguised by camouflage netting and fake trees. The Germans carefully photographed the completed site from the air to test the camouflage, but the Soviets were soon aware of the existence of the headquarters and of its purpose.
Hitler’s train was kept under more nets and trees at Bahnhof Gorlitz, the Wolf’s Lair’s private station. Hitler first arrived at the Wolf’s Lair by train on 24 June 1941 and would stay, with some large breaks when he was in Berlin, Munich, and Berchtesgaden or at Werwolf, another Eastern Front headquarters, until 20 November 1944.
Visitors could arrive at the Wolf’s Lair using four methods. The first method was by train, arriving at Gorlitz Station. Every night two identical courier trains left from Silesian Station in Berlin and the town of Angerburg in East Prussia, arriving at the opposite destination the next morning. The second method was by plane, arriving at Rastenburg Airfield southwest of the Wolf’s Lair. Thirdly, the headquarters complex could be approached by road from the west, south or east. Fourthly, a rail trolley, a kind of tram, commuted between the Wolf’s Lair and the OKH “Mauerwald” command complex near Angerburg with stops at Gorlitz Station and at the eastern entrance gate near the Luftwaffe liaison offices.
In order to enter Sperrkreis I, the complex’s inner sanctum where Hitler lived and worked, one would have to pass through at least four security checkpoints.
Sperrkreis III was the outer security area consisting of fences, gates, slit trenches and guardhouses. The perimeter was extensively mined. After the war the Soviets removed 54,000 landmines from the complex. Close by to the northeast of Sperrkreis III was a Wehrmacht operations staff facility and army headquarters. Additional troops were stationed 45 miles (72km) away in case of an emergency. This unit, a kampfgruppe (battlegroup), was under the command of highly decorated combat officer Generalmajor Walter Denkert. It was later envisaged that Kampfgruppe Denkert would be used to garrison proposed Festung (Fortress) Lotzen. Denkert’s troops had responsibility for guarding the area outside of Sperrkreis III.
The FBB was responsible for guarding and defending Sperrkreis III. The unit was expanded in April 1943 by the creation of a second unit, the Führergrenadierbataillon (FGB) from selected Grossdeutschland personnel. The FBB and FGB had tanks, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units and mechanized infantry with which to defend the Wolf’s Lair.
Within Sperrkreis III, like a Russian doll, sat Sperrkreis II. It was a self-contained fenced area lying north and south of the Angerburg road. It contained concrete and brick one-storey houses of the Wehrmachtfuhrungsstab (Armed Forces Leadership Staff) and the headquarters of the Wolf’s Lair Commandant and his staff. There were two messes, heating plants and a communications centre. East of the buildings, and south of the road, were more concrete and brick houses containing the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe liaison offices, a two-storey building for drivers with a large garage on the ground floor to store and maintain Mercedes limousines, two tall air raid bunkers, FBB barracks and the barracks for the Führer-Flak-Abteilung (Führer Anti-Aircraft Detachment). Sperrkreis II also contained housing for some of the senior Nazi leaders including Hitler’s Armaments Minister Albert Speer and Reich Labour Front leader Fritz Todt (until his death in a plane crash in February 1942).
Sitting like the yolk at the heart of the Wolf’s Lair egg was Sperrkreis I – the holiest of holies. Within Sperrkreis I was the Führerbunker as well as a collection of ten concrete bunkers or concrete and brick houses for the inner circle and their staffs. These consisted of bunkers for Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Head of the Armed Force (OKW), Press Chief Dr. Otto Dietrich, Martin Bormann, a second communications centre, Generaloberst Jodl, Chief of the OKW Operations Staff, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Army Personnel Office, and the Adjutants Office. There was a house for the shorthand writers who transcribed all of Hitler’s conversations and orders. Each bunker was above ground, the marshy soil precluding very many subterranean constructions, and each was built of steel reinforced concrete with 6ft 5in (2m) thick roofs to protect from aerial bombs. Hitler became increasingly and somewhat morbidly fascinated by the idea of an Allied bombing raid on the Wolf’s Lair and once remarked to his secretary Traudl Junge: ‘They know exactly where we are, and sometime they’re going to destroy everything here with carefully aimed bombs. I expect them to attack any day.’
To ensure his survival Hitler had Sperrkreis I extensively rebuilt in 1944, Albert Speer spending 36 million Reichsmarks reinforcing the bunkers. The Fuhrerbunker was turned into a veritable fortress containing a large maze of passages, rooms and halls. The roof was increased to a thickness of 23 feet (7m), with a layer of gravel within designed to provide a cushioning effect and prevent the cracking of the inner bunker shell if struck by large aerial bombs.
Within Sperrkreise I were also several RSD command posts, Hitler’s personal air raid shelter, the Secretariat under Philipp Bouhler, Johann Rattenhuber’s RSD security headquarters, a post office, radio and telex buildings, vehicle garages, a siding for Hitler’s private train, a cinema and generator buildings.
There were quarters for Hitler’s personal physician, the fat and unpopular Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s chief Luftwaffe adjutant General der Flieger Karl Bodenschatz, Walter Hewel of the Foreign Ministry, Vizeadmiral Hans Voss of the Kriegsmarine, and after 1943 SS-Brigadeführer Hermann Fegelein, representing Himmler’s SS. Martin Bormann always close by his Führer, having in addition to his personal bunker a nearby staff accommodation house and an air raid shelter. Hitler’s bunker was located at the northern end with all of its windows facing north to avoid direct sunlight. Hitler, Keitel and Jodl’s bunkers had built-in conference rooms.
For relaxation Sperrkreis I also had an officers’ mess, a mess room, teahouse, sauna, heating plant and a communal air raid shelter. The interiors were Spartan, as Hitler intended all of his field headquarters to reflect his own personal tastes and his concern to distance himself from his ‘official’ home in the grand and ostentatious Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler always wanted to appear as a humble and frugal man in front of his people, though ironically his security needs ended up absorbing huge amounts of money and manpower that could have been more profitably used helping the war effort. For example, in 1944 alone, Bormann had 28,000 forced labourers working on improving Hitler’s various headquarters when every able-bodied worker was needed in the armaments industry.
To guard further against the possibility of air attack there was a radar system that was able to locate incoming enemy aircraft up to 60 miles (96km) away, giving several minutes warning of an air raid, though the Wolf’s Lair was never seriously targeted by either the Red Air Force or the British and Americans. The Führer-Luft-Nachrichten-Abteilung (Führer Air Intelligence Detachment) had many observation posts to back up the radar system. If a plane was detected inside the security zone an alert list of key persons were immediately evacuated to shelters by the RSD or SS-Begleit-Kommando. Soviet planes did drop a few bombs on Sperrkreis III on one occasion, but other than this one nuisance raid the enemy left the Wolf’s Lair in peace.
Certain senior Nazis were prevented from having offices inside the Wolf’s Lair by Bormann, most notably Heinrich Himmler and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The OKH was also located elsewhere, only having adjutants at the Wolf’s Lair and regular visits by army commanders.
The OKH Eastern Front HQ was codenamed ‘Mauerwald’ and consisted of two sections that were separated by the Rosengarten–Angerburg road. ‘Fritz’ contained the General Staff offices and bunkers while ‘Quelle’ housed the supply section and general administration offices. The HQ was decentralized for security reasons, some personnel living in barracks in Angerburg, Lotzen and other local towns. In total, around 1,500 officers and men worked at Mauerwald. The generals and other senior officers were guarded by sixty secret military police and the entire site patrolled by two companies of older Wehrmacht soldiers who were unfit for frontline duty.
Hitler was always concerned about enemy parachute attack on his headquarters or those of the army high command and other important complexes close to the Wolf’s Lair. Hitler had sited his Eastern Front headquarters in dense forest in an attempt to preclude the Soviets from attempting this form of assault, because paratroop units that jump into forests generally suffered huge casualties from injuries sustained when striking the canopy, or prove easy targets for defending forces when strung up in the trees. The area around the Wolf’s Lair contained few open spaces big enough for the kind of enemy force that would be required to overwhelm the FBB units defending the Führer. But in winter this was not the case. The large lakes, including the nearby Moy-see and Zeiser-see, that dotted the marshy East Prussian landscape froze solid, providing perfect drop zones for paratroopers or glider-borne commandos. There was also a small landing strip for Fieseler Fi-156 Storch spotter planes south of the facility. Also located nearby, and separate from Hans Baur’s Führer Squadron (F.d.F) was the Führer Kurier Staffel (Führer Courier Squadron) under the command of Luftwaffe Hauptmann Talk. This unit consisted of between six and twelve fighters that could be used to quickly move around documents or dispatches and to ferry messages.
The threat from paratroopers was limited to some extent when the FBB dug in 20mm anti-aircraft cannons around the lakes to be used in the ground role, and to punch holes in the ice in the event of a sudden enemy landing. In the town of Goldap, 43.5 miles (70km) northeast of the Wolf’s Lair was a German paratroop battalion that was kept in a high state of readiness. If enemy forces or partisans penetrated the Wolf’s Lair’s security zone, these German paratroopers had orders to fly directly to Hitler’s aide and jump into action over Sperrkreise I, II, and III, Hitler apparently having no qualms about the casualties that these elite troops would suffer jumping into a forest canopy or landing on minefields.
Hitler and his staff would seal themselves inside their gas and bomb proof bunkers and await relief. Other nearby troops included SS Anti-Tank Training and Replacement Battalion 1 in Rastenburg.
As at the Berghof in Bavaria, so life for Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair was fairly relaxed and very routine. Hitler was remarkably indolent for a man attempting to hold his crumbling empire together, and usually rose late in the morning. After rising, washing and being shaved by his valet and taking breakfast Hitler would walk his Alsatian dog Blondi within Sperrkreis I between 9 and 10am. He did this alone with only his own thoughts for company. At his military headquarters Hitler always wore a form of uniform unique to him. Before the war Hitler was often seen dressed in a brown tunic with red and gold Nazi Party armband and black trousers, but he never wore this uniform once the war began. Instead, he would wear a high double-breasted military-style field grey tunic with a golden German eagle the left upper arm, white shirt, black tie, black trousers and leather shoes and a grey and brown peaked cap with gold embroidered eagle and national cockade.
When he was walking outside he usually also wore kid leather gloves. On the left side of his tunic were three badges – his Iron Cross First Class and Wound Badge in Black from the First World War and his Nazi Gold Party Badge. He was entitled to wear four other First World War decorations (Iron Cross Second Class, Bavarian Cross of Military Merit, Third Class with Swords, Bavarian Medal of Military Service, Third Class, Honour Cross of the World War 1914-18 with Swords) but never did. He was very proud of his Iron Cross and he wore it, along with his Wound Badge, to demonstrate his wartime courage and service to the ‘Fatherland’.
At 10.30am the mail was brought in to him. At noon he would walk across to Keitel and Jodl’s shared conference room for the first of the two daily situation briefings delivered by the military high command. This event, known as the ‘situation discussion’ was the most important event of the day. Depending on the news, this meeting might last for up to two hours. Lunch was served in the dining room promptly at 2pm. Hitler usually sat in the same place, between press secretary Dr. Otto Dietrich and Generaloberst Jodl. Opposite usually sat Keitel, Bormann and Generalder Flieger Bodenschatz. This arrangement was changed after a heated argument between Hitler and Jodl one lunchtime in early September 1942. Afterwards, Hitler ate along or with two of his secretaries until he became bored and a fresh list of lunch companions was drawn up.
Following his vegetarian meal Hitler would deal with non-military matters, particularly any meetings or receptions. He frequently had important international guests to talks at the Wolf’s Lair. Some of the notable visitors included Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary, Admiral Pierre Laval, Prime Minister of Vichy France, Finnish statesman Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim, Mussolini and the Japanese Ambassador, General Hiroshi Oshima.
At 5pm Hitler would call the two female secretaries that he took with him to the Wolf’s Lair in to take coffee with him, as well some of his military aides. ‘A special world of praise was bestowed on the one who could eat the most cakes.’
At 6pm sharp there occurred the day’s second military briefing, the briefing delivered by Jodl. Dinner was served at 7.30pm, often dragging on for two hours as Hitler subjected his guests to one of his infamous monologues.
Afterwards, Hitler and his inner circle, and any high-ranking guests that were visiting him, usually repaired to the cinema to watch films and newsreels. Then Hitler would retire to his personal quarters, usually with Bormann and his two female secretaries, and talk or listen to music until the early hours. ‘Sometimes, it was daylight by the time the nocturnal discussions came to an end.’ As the war started to go badly for Hitler the atmosphere around changed. Towards the end Jodl was to describe the Wolf’s Lair as halfway ‘between a monastery and a concentration camp.’
Hitler’s two secretaries at the Wolf’s Lair, Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski (later Christian) were given very simple living quarters. ‘The sleeping section of their bunker was no larger than a compartment in a railway carriage. It had a toilet, a mirror, and a radio, but not much else. There were shower rooms.’ They were also under-employed in the almost exclusively male-dominated world of the Wolf’s Lair, drawing criticism from many of the adjutants. But it appeared that Hitler liked to have females around for company. ‘They had as good as nothing to do. Sleeping, eating, drinking, and chatting filled up most of their day.’ The job of being Hitler’s secretary was not, apparently, a particularly happy one. ‘We are permanently cut off from the world wherever we are,’ complained Schroeder in a letter to a friend in August 1941, ‘in Berlin, on the Mountain [Obersalzberg], or on travels. It’s always the same limited group of people, always the same routine inside the fence.’
Security and guard duties along the fences of Sperrkreise I and II were primarily the responsibility of the FBB. Hauptmann Gaum, an FBB officer, made this point emphatically to his British interrogators in late 1944. Three guard companies were on active duty at any given time, day or night. Inside Sperrkreiss I the primary bodyguards were RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando. RSD Bureau I worked in cooperation with the SS. An SS-Begleit-Kommando officer was responsible for guard changes and patrols by both services as well as guards at the cinema, the issue of passwords, and supervising guards details in their quarters before they came on duty. Permanent guards were mounted as follows:
SS-Begleit-Kommando guard in front of the Führerbunker day and night.
RSD officer on constant patrol around the Führerbunker day and night.
RSD officer in front of the shorthand writers’ building day and night.
RSD officer patrolling throughout Sperrkreis I between 10am and 6pm.
Hitler’s permanent adjutants were empowered to use the RSD guards for small errands as required. Anyone leaving one bunker to visit another bunker had to have permission. Officers were not permitted to freely wander around Sperrkreiss I. Identity papers could be demanded at any time, and the RSD would check them thoroughly and the person would then be escorted to his destination or to an exit gate into Sperrkreis II. The RSD guards were not supposed to stand around chatting or to walk in pairs. When Hitler was walking his dog or strolling the grounds in conversation with a member of the inner circle or a guest, the RSD officer on roving patrol was supposed to keep other people out of earshot of Hitler, and also make sure that he stayed well back. RSD guards were also not permitted to enter the Führerbunker unless they were escorting in a workman or a maintenance engineer. Any messages or packages for the Führerbunker were handed to one of Hitler’s adjutants at the main door.
Although it appeared that the guards always followed strict protocol regarding passes, Hauptmann Gaum noted that this was not always rigorously applied for the top Nazis. ‘If a person such as Himmler or Göring were seen approaching slowly in a car, he might possibly be let by without being checked by the sentry, but in that case the sentry would ring the Ic of the Camp Commandant, who was the official responsible for issuing passes to persons before entering the FHQ.’
Hitler was frightened of the noxious vapours that were given off from his ferro-concrete bunker walls at the Wolf’s Lair, so the RSD maintained oxygen tanks outside of the bunkers ready to pump in fresh air. These tanks were regularly tested. The bunkers were also fitted with anti-gas chambers to prevent the enemy or any would be assassins from pumping poison gas into the bunkers through the air ventilation system.
On 20 September 1943 Hitler, returning to Wolf’s Lair from his other Eastern Front HQ codenamed Werwolf, decided to further tighten up his security arrangements. Rudolf Schmundt and NSKK-Gruppenführer Albert Bormann, Martin Bormann’s brother and one of Hitler’s closest aides, issued a new directive to further intensify security and secrecy within Sperrkreis I. A new inner sanctum was created called Sperrkreis A. It included Keitel’s bunkers and annexes, Hitler’s personal adjutants building, Mess No. 1, the teahouse, the Führerbunker, Martin Bormann’s bunker, the Wehrmacht Adjutants’ Office and the Army Personnel Office. Only those serving with Hitler directly or those who had offices within Sperrkreiss A, or those who lived there, were allowed in regularly. New passes were issued by the RSD.
Additional passes could be issued by HQ Commandant only on the authority of Schmundt or his deputy in consultation with Hitler’s aide SS-Obergruppenführer Schaub or his deputy. The guard could issue day passes only after a personal or military adjutant of the Führer had given his permission. No one was allowed inside Sperrkreis A without a valid pass. Anyone found without the proper documentation, regardless of rank, would be immediately arrested by the RSD.
Three gates gave access to Sperrkreiss A – one by Keitel’s bunker, one next to the Adjutants’ House and one by Bormann’s building. One RSD officer and one FBB NCO manned each gate. The FBB was responsible for checking passes and the RSD man assisted. In addition, one RSD officer was on constant patrol within Sperrkreiss A.
A special list of thirty-eight persons was created by the RSD. These men and women were permitted to dine with the Fuhrer at lunchtime in Dining Room No. 1, and Hitler would select several each day from the list who were then issued with passes for Sperrkreiss A. In addition, a further forty-three aides, valets, typists and shorthand writers were on another list permitting them to dine in Dining Room No. 2 inside Sperrkreiss I.
These new security precautions made any attempt to kill the Führer considerably more difficult. An assassin would firstly have to have a valid reason to enter the Wolf’s Lair complex, and would have to pass through four identity checks before gaining direct access to Hitler. Very few people were given passes for Sperrkreiss I, let alone the new inner sanctum of Sperrkreiss A. But those determined to kill Hitler were resourceful and often well-connected individuals who were prepared to use Hitler’s security precautions to their own advantage. During 1943-44 trusted men who were close to Hitler tried to kill him on several occasions. It would only take the right circumstances for one of these brave men to succeed and change Germany and the world’s destiny in an instant. The countdown to Operation Valkyrie had begun…
With the current uncertainty in US-North Korean relations here’s an amazing and true, but largely unknown, story from the first Korean War.
In 1952, deep in the midst of the brutal Korean War, Chairman Mao ordered a special ‘Camp Olympics’ organised in North Korea with competing teams made up of prisoners-of-war from the UN nations. This Communist propaganda coup was run along the lines of the real Olympic Games, and involved teams competing in many Olympic sports. Britain and the United States were especially prominent players. To read more check out my article in Military History Monthly http://www.military-history.org/articles/war-zone-pow-camp-korea-1952.htm
The Yushukan is a military and war museum located within the highly controversial Yasakuni Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo. Dedicated to the souls of soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan from the 1868 Meiji Restoration until the Japanese surrender in 1945, it is the oldest military museum in Japan founded in 1882.
The Museum has been accused of historical revisionism in its accounts of Japanese actions in World War II, and for glorifying Japan’s aggressive militarism of the 1930s and 1940s, Yushukan contains an extensive collection of aircraft, tanks and other weapons. Many have been recovered from Pacific battlefields for display at Yushukan. There are also shrines to various military organisations, ships etc, most notably Kamikaze pilots and the dreaded Kempeitai Military Police, Japan’s Gestapo.
Memorial to the Kempeitai Military Police
I took a series of photographs during visits to both Yasakuni and Yushukan in 2013 that I hope you will interesting. Where possible I have included museum caption boards that I think demonstrate why the museum has such a controversial reputation.
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter in the Museum’s entrance hall.
Steam locomotive C56 31, used in the opening ceremony of the Burma-Thailand Railway. Returned to Japan from Thailand in 1979. Below is the museum information board with no mention of Japanese atrocities against POWs and indigenous people who were forced to labour on the “Railway of Death”.
Model 96 (1936) 150mm Howitzer from the Battle of Okinawa 1945. See Museum info board below for more information.
Model 89 (1929) 150mm Gun from the Battle of Okinawa
Yokosuka D4Y bomber discovered in the jungle of Yap in the Caroline Islands in 1972 and restored for display at Yushukan
Another view of the D4Y. Suspended behind is a Yokosuka Ohka suicide bomb.
Type 97 Chi-Ha tank recovered from the island of Yap (revealing info board below).
Model 41 (1908) Mountain Gun – used in New Guinea.
Adolf Hitler greeting Colonel-General Ferdinand Schoerner inside the Führerbunker, April 1945.
There are few stories as enigmatic as the last days in the Berlin Bunker. Historians cannot agree on what exactly occurred 8.5 metres below the Reichs Chancellery garden, providing for some intriguing theories. As I was in Berlin exactly 71 years to the month of Hitler’s death, I thought I’d see what remains. The answer is ‘not a lot’, but with a little detective work, some maps, some old photos and a splash of imagination its possible to find yourself standing on the spot where the final death throes of the Thousand Year Reich were played out.
Following the failure of the last German offensive in the West, a dispirited Hitler returned to Berlin on 16 January 1945 aboard his private train, the Führersonderzug.
As the long train wound its way through the devastated capital Hitler reportedly looked out at the ruins from his Pullman carriage, both surprised and depressed by the grim sights that greeted him. He needed no more than to look out the window to see the reality of his military failure.
The bomb destroyed spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church today.
Arriving at Grunewald Station at 9.40am, Hitler climbed down from the Führersonderzug for the last time and was driven in a convoy of armoured Mercedes to the Reichs Chancellery, passing through bomb-damaged streets whose gutted and roofless apartment buildings and shops bore silent witness to the final collapse of the Third Reich.
A huge Soviet winter offensive began just two days later. By the end of the month the Soviets were only seventy miles from Berlin. Hitler continued to live in his apartments in the Old Reichs Chancellery until mid-February before moving into the Führerbunker to sleep. Until mid-March 1945 Hitler also continued to take his meals in the New Reichs Chancellery and to hold his military situation conferences there inside his enormous study. The grand hallway outside was still intact, though the artworks and priceless tapestries had been removed to protect them from the bombing.
The bomb-ravaged Reichs Chancellery in May 1945
Although Hitler continued to come up from the Führerbunker into both Chancelleries, to continue working in his study and used some of the building’s other rooms, he did not see the vast amount of damage that had been caused to both buildings by British and American aerial bombing. Staff officers visiting the Reichs Chancellery for meetings had to take long and circuitous routes to reach Hitler’s study, as corridors had been reduced to rubble by direct hits. Soon the Reichs Chancellery would start to come under artillery and rocket fire from the advancing Red Army.
A view of the Führerbunker’s emergency exit (the concrete cube on the left) in the ruined Old Reichs Chancellery Garden in 1947.
The same view in April 2016. The emergency exit and conical guard tower would stand about halfway into the current road. The remains of the Führerbunker still exist below the road and pedestrian path. The Vorbunker or Upper Bunker has been removed.
Because of the constant bombing raids and air raid alerts Hitler decided to move his headquarters underground into the Führerbunker beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery gardens in mid-March 1945. Although now safe from aerial attack, the Führerbunker was completely inadequate for use as a military headquarters as it was too small to accommodate sufficient staff or visiting generals attending conferences. It came to be described by many who visited it during the last weeks of the war as a fetid hole in the ground or a ‘concrete coffin’.
One of Hitler’s last public appearances – congratulating Hitler Youths who had been awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class fighting the Soviets in East Prussia. A stooped and exhausted Hitler is pictured walking to the ceremony in the Reichs Chancellery Garden on 21 March 1945. Other leading ‘Bunker’ personalities in the photo are, third from left Hitler Youth Leader Artur Axmann, 4th from left SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison at the Bunker, 5th from left SS-Obergruppenführer Julius Schaub, Hitler’s adjutant.
The Führerbunker had its genesis in air raid shelters built under and adjoined to buildings on Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse in 1935. When the New Reichs Chancellery complex was completed in January 1939 it included more air raid shelters. One was the Vorbunker, or Upper Bunker. Architect Leonhard Gall submitted plans in 1935 for a large reception hall cum ballroom to be added to the Old Reichs Chancellery. Completed in 1936, the Vorbunker had a roof that was 5.24 feet (1.6 m) thick, the bunker’s thick walls partially supporting the weight of the large reception hall overhead.
A Nazi eagle salvaged from the Reichs Chancellery in 1945, and now displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Some idea of the scale and style of the New Reichs Chancellery can be derived from one of two surviving Nazi-era ministry building in Berlin – Hermann Goring’s Air Ministry on Wilhelmstrasse. The other is Dr. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry.
There were two entrances into the Vorbunker; one from the Foreign Ministry garden and the other from the New Reichs Chancellery. Both led to a reinforced steel gas proof door leading to a set of small rooms.
This photo is of the interior of the SS bunker beneath Hitler’s house, the Berghof, on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria. It hints at the look of the Berlin bunker.
On the left was the Water Supplies/Boiler Room, to the right the Airfilters Room. Moving forward there was a middle Dining Area with a Kitchen to the left, which was where Hitler’s cook/dietician Frau Constanze Manziarly prepared the Führer’s meals. There was also a well-stocked Wine Store. To the right of the Dining Area was the Personnel/Guard Quarters. Moving forward again, there was a Conference Room in the middle and on the left two rooms that originally housed Hitler’s physician Dr. Theodor Morell and, following his dismissal in April 1945, Dr. Goebbels’ wife Magda and her six young children. To the right of the Conference Room was a room used for guest quarters, two storerooms and then a stairway set at right angles connecting to the Führerbunker that was 8.2 feet (2.5 m) lower than the Vorbunker and west-southwest of it. Steel doors could close off the Vorbunker and Führerbunker from one another and the SS closely guarded all entrances and exits.
Beneath this nondescript patch of grass was the connecting staircase between the Vorbunker (Upper Bunker) on the right, which was constructed beneath the Reichschancellery and the deeper Führerbunker (left)
Hitler’s Führerbunker, or Lower Bunker, was built in 1942-43 28 feet (8.5 m) beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery Garden 131 yards (120 m) north of the New Chancellery at a cost of 1.4 million Reichsmarks. It was deep enough to withstand the largest bombs that were being dropped by the British and Americans over the city.
Designed by the architectural firm Hochtief under Albert Speer’s supervision, the Führerbunker was one of about twenty bunkers and air raid shelters used by Hitler’s inner circle, bodyguards and military commanders in the region of the Reichs Chancellery. Many cellars in the surrounding buildings were also utilised as auxiliary bunkers during the Battle of Berlin.
The Führerbunker suffered from noise caused by the steady running of aeration ventilators twenty-four hours a day and also had a problem with cool moisture on the walls as Berlin has a very high ground water level.
Steel safes photographed inside the Vorbunker by an East German in 1987, when the authorities pumped out the upper bunker preparatory to destroying it.
Entry into the Führerbunker was via the Vorbunker, passing down the dogleg staircase, which led to a guarded door giving access to a long Hall/Lounge, where RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando sentries checked identity papers before permitting entry to the Führerbunker proper.
This was through double steel gas proof doors set into the bunker’s 7.2 feet (2.2m) thick protective wall. The Führerbunker was divided along a central corridor that gave access to an emergency exit staircase at the far end that led up to the surface in the Reichs Chancellery Garden.
Another 1987 shot of the Vorbunker. This structure has now been erased, though the Fuhrerbunker remains intact 2.5m beneath.
This corridor was divided into two long rooms. The first of these on entering the Führerbunker was the Corridor/Lounge. A door on the left led to the Toilets and Electricity Switch Room. From the Toilets a connecting door led to the Bathroom/Dressing Room with Eva Braun’s Bedroom on the right of the Bathroom.
View behind the Vorbunker looking towards the Führerbunker today. In 1945 you would have been standing inside the Old Reichs Chancellery.
A door connected the Bathroom with Hitler’s Sitting Room. To the right of this room was Hitler’s Study, dominated by a large painting of King Frederick the Great that Hitler would spend much time staring at as the Soviets fought their way into Berlin’s suburbs, hoping that he could emulate Frederick and turn back the Bolshevik horde with some final grand military gesture.
A recreation of Hitler’s study in a German museum – this was where Hitler and his wife killed themselves.
A door connected Hitler’s Sitting Room with Hitler’s Bedroom. A door on the right of Hitler’s Study led back into the central corridor, this section called the Conference Room.
Mark standing above Hitler’s suite of rooms that still exist 8.5 metres below ground.
The last three rooms on the left of the Führerbunker were not connected to Hitler’s suite and consisted of the Map Room where Hitler held most of his military situation conferences during the last weeks of the war, the Cloakroom and a Ventilation Room.
The left side of the Führerbunker consisted, moving from the staircase connecting it with the Vorbunker to the emergency exit tothe Reichs Chancellery Gardens, of a series of rooms. First was the Generator/Ventilation Plant Room. This was connected to the Telephone Switchboard Room where SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch of the SS-Begleit-Kommando worked, Martin Bormann’s Office and the Guard Room. Hitler’s loyal valet SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge lived here. Next were two rooms: Goebbels’ Office and the Doctor’s Room. The last two rooms on the right of the central Conference Room were Goebbels’ Bedroom and the Doctor’s Quarters. Parts of the two bunkers were carpeted and one section of this material was recently discovered in a British regimental archive. It reveals that the carpet had a floral pattern of yellow flowers and blue leaves on a fawn background. The rooms were furnished with expensive pieces taken from the Reichs Chancellery above and there were several framed oil paintings on the walls. But the interior, in keeping with Hitler’s other field headquarters, could not be described as anything other than Spartan and functional.
Hitler viewing bomb damage inside the Reichs Chancellery, April 1945 (purportedly the last picture ever taken of Hitler)
On 16 April the Red Army commenced the operation to capture Berlin, assaulting the Seelow Heights, the last significant German defence line east of the city. The fighting was fierce, the Soviets suffering heavy casualties, but by the 19th they had broken though and there was now no longer a proper defence position left to protect the city.
On 20 April, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery came in range of the Berlin suburbs and opened fire. By the next evening T-34 tanks had arrived on the outskirts.
Soviet T-34 that fought in the battle mounted on a plinth along the East-West Axis through the Tiergarten, Berlin.
As the Red Army began to close a ring around Berlin and began to fight through the city suburbs in several directions aiming for the nearby Reichstag building, efforts were taken to increase the protection afforded to the Reichs Chancellery and the Führerbunker.
Severe battle damage on the Brandenburg Gate three minutes walk from Hitler’s bunker. When Hitler died, the Soviets were at the nearby Reichstag and very close to the Gate.
On 22 April 1945 KampfgruppeMohnke was formed out of all available elite guard units from across Berlin and sent to defend the government quarter, Sector Z (Citadel), from the Soviets. Its commander, 34-year-old SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke had been one of the founding members of the SS-Stabswache (Staff Guard) in Berlin in 1934. A highly decorated Waffen–SS field commander, by 1945 Mohnke commanded the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division.
A Soviet heavy artillery gun from the battle preserved on Berlin’s East-West Axis near the Brandenburg Gate.
By 22 April the Germans defending Berlin were outnumbered virtually 10-1, German units had been severely degraded and worn down by almost continuous fighting since the start of the Soviet spring offensive in January. One hundred thousand Volkssturm, mostly consisting of older men above military age, Hitler Youth and foreign SS volunteers, was backing up the regular troops in the hopeless defence.
With virtually no tanks, limited artillery and no viable Luftwaffe over the capital, the defence of Berlin would not last for long.
The focus of the Soviet assaults was the Reichstag, abandoned since 1933, close to the Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker
The repaired (though heavily scarred) Reichstag from the same angle today.
Hitler grasped at anything that he thought might turn the tide. When he observed the vulnerability of one of the Soviet flanks he gave orders for SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s Army Detachment to counterattack, refusing to accept that Steiner’s forces were severely depleted and simply not up to the task. When Hitler discovered at the afternoon situation conference in the bunker that Steiner had failed to attack he suffered a complete mental collapse and once he stopped screaming declared to his shocked audience that the war was lost. Later that day Hitler consulted SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr. Werner Haase on the best method to kill oneself. Haase suggested that he bite down on a cyanide capsule whilst simultaneously shooting himself in the head.
By the last week of April 1945 Hitler’s world had shrunk to a few grey concrete rooms deep beneath the Reichs Chancellery Garden in Berlin. Up above, Soviet artillery shells and rockets blasted the once immaculate Chancellery buildings into ruins. Huge sections of roof and walls had collapsed, while the remaining structures were shell- and shrapnel-scarred, fire scorched or windowless.
The Reichs Chancellery Garden, its trees blasted and stripped of their foliage and the lawn churned up by shell craters, was only passable between bombardments and Hitler’s RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando guards were largely withdrawn from exposed sentry posts on the Chancellery roof and outside the bunker entrances. Each time another Soviet barrage went up the guards fled inside the bunker entrances, slamming the thick steel doors closed behind them. Hitler forbade smoking in the Führerbunker, so smokers had to go up to the Vorbunker to enjoy a cigarette. With their nerves on edge, many of the bunker inhabitants were smoking and drinking heavily. Some hardier souls would emerge into the shattered gardens to smoke or catch a few minutes of fresh air before Soviet shelling forced them once more into the dank subterranean bunkers, while Hitler’s dog Blondi was still walked in the garden by his handler.
Hitler & Blondi on the Obersalzberg
By 27 April 1945 Berlin was completely surrounded. The bunker had lost secure radio communications with the main German units fighting desperately in the ruins and had to rely on the telephone network for news. To all intents and purposes the last Führer Headquarters was blind and incapable of really commanding anything. Soviet troops were on the Alexanderplatz and would soon reach the Potsdamer Platz, where the bunker was located. Efforts were still being made to affect a linkup between the remnants of the 9th Army defending the city and General Wenck’s 12th Army that was attempting to fight its way into Potsdam.
The famous Victory Column on the East-West Axis in 2016 (above) and 1945 (below)
As this last desperate attempt was being made SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke reported that enemy tanks had penetrated the nearby Wilhelmsplatz – they had been repulsed this time, but time was running out.
The following day’s news of Heinrich Himmler’s entreaties to the Western Allies reached the bunker. Hitler was incensed and ordered Himmler’s arrest for treason. He demanded to see SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s representative in the bunker, but he was nowhere to be found. An RSD snatch squad was dispatched that discovered Fegelein in his apartment with his mistress, drunk and with a suitcase of civilian clothes packed along with false identity papers. He was escorted back to the bunker, summarily sentenced to death by a court martial and shot in the Reichs Chancellery garden. By now, the Red Army was at the Potsdammer Platz and was evidently preparing to storm the Reichs Chancellery.
The Brandenburg Gate 1945 and 2016
Topside, the remaining men of Kampfgruppe Mohnke fought the Soviets around the Chancellery site from prepared positions and a multitude of other bunkers and cellars, as well as utilizing the remaining portions of the underground railway system that was still in German hands. The French SS of the Charlemagne Division in particular distinguished themselves as tank destroyers, knocking out dozens of Soviet T-34s with handheld Panzerfaust rocket launchers. Ironically, it was two Frenchmen who were the last soldiers to be decorated with Nazi Germany’s highest bravery award, the Knight’s Cross. Ammunition supplies were dwindling rapidly alongside the mounting casualties. The main Reichs Chancellery bunker had been transformed into an emergency casualty clearing station and refuge.
Knowing that the end was near seemed to make up Hitler’s mind concerning a personal matter. Just after midnight on 30 April Hitler married his longtime girlfriend Eva Braun in a simple ceremony inside the bunker. It was her reward for her years of loyalty to him. She was under no illusions – she had come to Berlin to die with Hitler.
At 1am on 30 May Generalfeldmarschall Keitel reported to Hitler that all German forces that had been ordered to relieve the capital were either surrounded or had been forced on to the defensive. No relief of the government quarter could be expected. Later that morning the attacking Soviets managed to penetrate to within 1,600 feet (500m) of the Führerbunker, despite the fanatical resistance being put up by Hitler’s guard detachments. Hitler met with General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area. He informed the Führer that there was enough ammunition to sustain the defence for a maximum of twenty-four hours. Weidling asked permission for the remaining troops to attempt a breakout, but Hitler did not reply. Weidling returned to his headquarters at the Bendlerblock. At 1pm he received permission from Hitler for a breakout.
Hitler had lunch with two of his secretaries and his cook and then he bade farewell to his staff and the remaining bunker occupants, including Bormann and Goebbels. With his wife, Hitler went into his study and closed the door at 2.30pm. Differing accounts of what happened next have surfaced over the years. The officially accepted story is that at shortly after 3.30pm Heinz Linge, with Bormann right behind him, opened the study door and was met with the strong smell of burnt almonds, a signature of hydrogen cyanide. Again accounts differ in the details but according to Linge, Eva Hitler was slumped to the left of the Führer on a sofa, her legs drawn up. Hitler ‘sat…sunken over, with blood dripping out of his right temple,’ wrote Linge. ‘He had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65.’
Hitler shot himself somewhere below this modern pavement. Due to the redevelopment of the area by the East Germans it is almost impossible to visualise how it looked in 1945. A Red Army soldier inside Hitler’s study deep in the Bunker shortly after its capture. Flooding has occurred after the pumps were switched off, due to Berlin’s high water table.
Hitler’s adjutant Günsche then entered the room, surveyed the scene and left shortly afterwards to declare to those waiting outside that the Führer was dead. Preparations had already been made to dispose of the bodies of Hitler and his wife as Hitler had made sure that Günsche understood that on no account was his body to be found intact by the Soviets. A few hours before Hitler killed himself Günsche had telephoned the Reichs Chancellery garage and spoken to Hitler’s principal driver, Erich Kempka. Günsche ordered Kempka to bring over a large quantity of petrol. ‘I was…to ensure that five cans of gasoline, that is to say 200 litres, were brought along,’ recalled Kempka. ‘I at once took along two or three men carrying cans. More were following, because it took time to collect 200 litres of gasoline.’ The cans were left near the bunker’s emergency exit.
Mark standing just outside the bunker’s emergency exit in April 2016, through which the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were brought outside to be cremated on 30 May 1945.
The same view in 1945. Mark would be standing just in front of the doorway on the left
Closer shot of the Bunker Emergency Exit, with an American officer passing Red Army sentries, showing the narrow metal staircase leading down to the Führerbunker.
Hitler’s body was wrapped in a blanket and carried up the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit by Linge, SS–Hauptsturmführer Ewald Lindloff and SS-Obersturmführer Hans Reisser of the SS-Begleit-Kommando, and SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter Högl, deputy commander of the RSD. Bormann carried Eva Hitler’s body upstairs. Once outside, the SS officers placed both of the bodies, still wrapped in grey blankets, into a shell crater and then doused them liberally with petrol. An attempt was made to light the petrol, but it was unsuccessful. Linge went back into the bunker and returned with a thick roll of papers. Bormann lit the papers and threw them into the hole, the petrol igniting with a whoosh. Others had joined them. Standing just inside the emergency exit door Günsche, Bormann, Högl, Linge, Lindloff, Reisser, Kempka and Goebbels raised their arms in the Nazi salute. But the party was soon driven inside as Soviet shells began to land in the Reichs Chancellery garden.
Mark pointing at the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned in the Reichschancellery’s Wintergarten.
The same place in May 1945. The shell hole is visible at the bottom left of the photograph.
Another view of the shell crater where the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were burned.
The shattered rear of the Reichs Chancellery facing on to the formal gardens above the Hitler’s lower bunker. This wall was directly behind the Bunker emergency exit. The Vorbunker (or Upper Bunker) was beneath this building.
The same view looking the opposite direction in 2016. The Reichs Chancellery’s rear would have roughly corresponded with the modern pavement and dirt tracks beside the low wooden fence above.
Thirty minutes after the cremation of Hitler and his wife was begun, Günsche ordered Lindloff to go out and see how it was progressing. Lindloff reported that both bodies were charred and had burst open. He also said that they had been damaged by shellfire. During the afternoon, SS-Begleit-Kommando guards continued to add jerry cans of fuel to the burning hole in between the Soviet barrages.
A closer view of the site of the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned.
At 4.15pm Linge ordered SS–Untersturmführer Heinz Krüger and SS-Oberscharführer Werner Schwiedel to roll up the bloodstained rug from Hitler’s study, carry it up to the Reichs Chancellery garden and burn it. At 6.30pm Lindloff reported to Günsche that he and Reisser had disposed of the remains. It appears that from the remains later found by the Soviets some days later that the bodies of Hitler and his wife were burned beyond recognition and possibly damaged by shellfire, if indeed they were the mortal remains of the tyrant and his spouse.
A Soviet ammunition crate said to contain the charred remains of Hitler. This is the only photograph that the Russians have released that claims to show Hitler’s corpse. No photographs from his autopsy have been made public. In contrast, there are numerous Red Army photos of Dr. Goebbels’ partially cremated body, both at the Bunker site and in a pathology laboratory.
Although Hitler was dead, the business of government continued as well as the defence of the remaining areas of the government quarter by Hitler’s bodyguard units and associated troops. Hitler’s Last Will and Testament had broken up the position of ‘Führer’ into three separate offices. Goebbels was named Reichs Chancellor; with Grossadmiral Dönitz appointed Reich President and Bormann made Party Minister.
Reichsleiter Martin Bormann
But at this stage, only Dönitz could exercise any limited control from Flensburg in the north. Goebbels made it very clear that he and his wife Magda would emulate their beloved Führer and commit suicide when the time came.
On 1 May Chancellor Goebbels drafted a letter to the Soviets and ordered 47-year-old General der Infanterie Hans Krebs, Chief of the Army General Staff (OKH), to deliver it under a white flag of truce to General Vasili Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army which was occupying central Berlin. The letter informed the Soviet High Command of Hitler’s death, the appointment of Goebbels as Reich Chancellor and his offer of a cease-fire. When Krebs was sent packing with the clear instruction that the Soviets would only accept unconditional surrender, Goebbels knew that it was futile to continue. Later that day Vizeadmiral Hans-Erich Voss and almost a dozen other military officers arrived at the Führerbunker to say farewell to Goebbels as their supreme commander.
At 8pm that evening Goebbels instructed dentist SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kunz to drug his six children with morphine. Then Hitler’s personal physician, SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, crushed a vial of cyanide in each of their jaws, killing them.
A little while later a subdued Goebbels pulled on his gloves and hat, and arm-in-arm with his wife, climbed the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit and emerged into the Reichs Chancellery garden. His adjutant, 29-year-old SS-Hauptsturmführer Gunther Schwägermann, followed him. (Historical Footnote: at the time of writing in 2016 Schwägermann remains alive, aged 101. He is certainly the last living witness to the events in the Bunker, but has refused to give any interviews.)
Schwägermann went to collect more petrol to burn the Goebbels’ bodies while Goebbels and his wife went around the corner out of sight. Schwägermann said that he heard a pistol shot and came upon his master and Magda Goebbels dead. She had taken poison while Goebbels had shot himself in the head. Schwägermann ordered the SS-Begleit-Kommando sentry at the bunker emergency exit to shoot Goebbels again in the head to make sure – Schwägermann could not face doing so himself. The two men then poured petrol over the bodies and set fire to them. Unfortunately, there was insufficient petrol remaining to burn the bodies and the fire-blackened corpses remained easily recognizable to Voss when he was forced by the Soviets to identify them the following day. The shape of Goebbels’ head and jaw as well as his leg brace were unmistakable, along with the remains of his brown Nazi uniform and Golden Party Badge.
Dr. Goebbels’ charred corpse
Between 1945 and 1949 the Soviets levelled the battle-damaged Old and New Reichs Chancelleries. A failed attempt was also made to destroy the Führerbunker. Because the site was close to the Berlin Wall, it remained essentially untouched until the late 1980s when East Germany built residential housing units and a new road system over the site. In 1988 the Vorbunker was torn out. The massive roof of the Führerbunker was broken up and allowed to fall into the rooms below before it was buried under a nondescript car park. So, the Führerbunker still exits, buried beneath modern Berlin, its historical significance marked only by a small information board erected on the site in 2006.
As for the New Reichs Chancellery building, this was knocked down by the Soviets shortly after the war. However, some of the marble panels that once lined the huge reception halls were used to refurbish Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn Station, the entrance to which is just across the street from the site of Hitler’s bunker and though rather shabby and dirty, the huge blocks of marble cover the walls and pillars. Here are some pictures:
‘We knew our fate. We knew that we were in an extermination camp and death was our destiny. We knew that even a sudden end to the war might spare the inmates of the ‘normal’ concentration camps, but never us. Only desperate actions could shorten our suffering and maybe afford us a chance of escape. And the will to resist had grown and ripened.’
Thomas Toivi Blatt
The small group of Jewish prisoners inside the camp tailor’s shop exchanged fearful glances, as the sound of hooves grew louder outside. One of them quickly peeked out of one of the hut’s small windows.
‘He’s arrived,’ he muttered. ‘Get ready.’
A few seconds later and the hut door opened and in stepped SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann, the 30-year-old deputy commandant of the Sobibor Extermination Camp. Outside, another prisoner held the bridle of Niemann’s chestnut horse that he used to ride imperiously around the camp. Niemann tucked his riding crop under one armpit and began to slowly remove his gloves, his hard eyes moving around the room and settling momentarily on each of the Jewish faces before him. The prisoners took in Niemann’s uniform and shuddered. A devil walked among them, the SS death’s head badge grinning at them from Niemann’s cap band and from his right collar patch. As a concentration camp officer in the notorious SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) Niemann did not wear the twin lightning flash runes of the Waffen-SS on his collar. His rank was indicated by three silver pips arranged in a diagonal line on his left collar patch and army-style silver shoulder straps. The prisoners glanced at his waist, where his black belt with its silver SS buckle supported a leather holster. Inside sat Niemann’s Luger pistol, ready for instant use against any ‘problem’ prisoners.
One of the tailors brought out an unfinished officer’s uniform ready for Niemann to try on. After removing his belt and tunic, the prisoners were helping him into the new jacket when Niemann sensed movement behind him. He turned his head to one side and managed to mutter ‘Was?’ before Soviet prisoner-of-war Alexander Shubayev buried a homemade hatchet in his skull. Niemann didn’t scream, just grunted at the impact, which killed him instantly. He collapsed onto the hut’s wooden floor, dark rivulets of blood running across its dusty surface from the gaping wound in his head. One prisoner picked up Niemann’s heavy gun belt and drew the Luger from its holster. It felt solid and cold in his grasp. He looked at his comrades and nodded slowly. The Sobibor Revolt had commenced.
Beginning in 1940, the Nazis had established sixteen labour camps in the Lublin region near the village of Sobibor. It was intended that the Jews sent to these camps would work as agricultural labourers under German colonial overseers. Over 95,000 Jews expelled from Warsaw and Vienna were shipped in for this task, and paid for their labour. They were housed in a network of subcamps based on the Concentration Camp at Krychow.
Sobibor Camp was constructed by SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla between March and April 1942, using Jewish Sonderkommando labour after German policy towards the Jews had dramatically changed. The location, marshy woodland with a sparse population, was chosen because it was close to the rail line that ran between Chelm and Wlodawa connecting the General Government with ReichskommissariatUkraine. The garrison would consist of a German commandant, initially SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, 29 SS non-commissioned officers, and between 90 and 120 Ukrainian SS auxiliaries, or “Trawnikis” after the concentration camp where the ex-Red Army prisoners-of-war were trained. At the end of August 1942 a new commandant was appointed after Stangl was moved to take command at Treblinka, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner.
An Austrian, Reichleitner had been born in 1906 and was another Aktion T4 veteran. At the Hartheim Institute, Reichleitner had worked alongside Franz Stangl under the command of Christian Wirth. The prisoners at Sobibor regarded Reichleitner as an austere figure who was always immaculately turned out in his uniform, and always wore gloves. He had very little to do with the Jews, relying on his trusted second-in-command Niemann and a coterie of efficient SS-TV sergeants and corporals. But it was obvious that Reichleitner was feared and respected by the other SS.
Sobibor was small compared with Auschwitz or Dachau, consisting of three camps, surrounded by a barbed wire fence into which tree branches had been woven. Trees had also been planted around the camp’s perimeter to further shield it from public view and it was also surrounded by a deep water-filled moat. Camp I, under the command of SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel consisted of the main administration offices, housing for the German SS and Trawnikis auxiliaries, and barracks for a large detachment of Jewish Sonderkommandos. Here also was the prisoners’ kitchen.
Thirty-two-year-old Frenzel had been active with the Nazis since 1930 when he had enlisted in the SA. When war broke out in 1939, Frenzel had been drafted into the Reich Labour Service but soon after released to help take care of his five children. Desperate to take part in the war effort, Frenzel volunteered through his SA connections and was recruited into the SS-TV and was assigned to the highly secret Aktion T4.
The T4 euthanasia programme that was partly based at Schloss Hartheim in Austria was the bloody prelude to the industrialized murders that were to follow in places like Sobibor and Treblinka II. The mentally retarded and physically disabled were murdered on the recommendations of doctors as the Nazis attempted to remove all ‘defectives’ from their population. Over 70,000 ‘patients’ were to die during the course of the programme, which continued in operation until just after the war ended in 1945. Told that the killings were the responsibility of doctors, Frenzel, Stangl, Reichleitner and the other SS-TV men had set aside their moral reservations and done their duty, as they conceived of it. Frenzel’s primary job was removing bodies from the small gas chambers, wrenching out any gold teeth and then burning the bodies in the crematoria.
On 20 April 1942 Frenzel was assigned to Sobibor, where he was widely detested and feared by the prisoners, and was known for using his whip on them frequently. In one notorious incident in spring 1943, two Jews from Chelm were caught trying to escape from Sobibor. Frenzel decided, in consultation with the other SS senior NCOs, that an example should be made. At roll call every tenth Jew was taken out of the line to be shot, twenty being murdered in this way. Following this escape attempt, a minefield was laid around the outside of the camp’s perimeter as a further deterrent.
Camp II, or the Vorlager, consisted of the railway platform where evacuation trains were off-loaded, a ramp, the undressing barracks and warehouses where 400 of the Jewish Sonderkommandos worked. They sorted and stored property confiscated from Jews that arrived by train at the camp platform. There was also a building where the newly arrived Jews had their heads shaved, and their valuables taken from them before they proceeded into Camp III and the gas chambers.
Camp III contained a further Sonderkommando unit’s barracks, these men tasked with the open-air cremation of the bodies of the dead and the disposal of these bones and ashes in large pits.
The evacuation trains that brought the Jews to Sobibor consisted of between forty and sixty freight cars. The platform in Camp II was large enough to permit the unloading of twenty cars at a time. On arrival, the SS told the Jews that the facility was a transit camp, where they would be disinfected for lice and processed through to working parties in labour camps elsewhere. ‘I helped Jews out of the trains with all their baggage,’ said Sonderkommando Philip Bialowitz. ‘My heart was bleeding knowing that in half an hour they would all be reduced to ashes. I couldn’t tell them. I wasn’t allowed to speak. Even if I told them, they wouldn’t believe they were going to die.’
Fresh arrivals were met by SS NCOs whose welcome speech was designed to make the Jews cooperate in their own destruction. ‘The Jews of Warsaw, your attention!’ one of the SS would shout along the length of the platform. ‘You are in a transit camp from which you will be sent to a labour camp. As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection. Gold, silver, foreign currency and jewellery must be placed with the cashier, in exchange for a receipt. These will be returned to you at a later time upon presentation of the receipt. For bodily washing before continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse.’
Some of the new arrivals would be hived off into the ranks of the Sonderkommandos to replace those who had died from disease, exhaustion or murder. In this way, tens of thousands of people arrived at the railway platform in front of the camp with no idea of what awaited them.
The main deportations to Sobibor were made between May 1942 and autumn 1943. The Jews came primarily from the ghettos of the General Government, with others from the Soviet Union, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Bohemia and Moravia, Netherlands and France. Altogether, upwards of 170,000 people entered Sobibor.
The events that led to a Sonderkommando rising at Treblinka had their roots elsewhere. Rumours arrived in Sobibor that most of the 600 Sonderkommando workers would soon become surplus to requirements and that the Germans planned to kill them. The reason for this was that another Aktion Reinhard death camp at Belzec had been closed and dismantled, the Germans shooting the remaining Sonderkommandos. The Sonderkommandos realised that the same thing would probably happen at Sobibor as the number of evacuation transports had noticeably slowed. The Jews needed a plan of action to save themselves. ‘We started organising and talking and it gave us something to live for again,’ said Esther Raab, a female prisoner. ‘[The idea] that maybe we’ll be able to take revenge for all those who can’t.’
The leader of the Jews in Sobibor was the 33-year-old son of a Polish rabbi named Leon Feldhendler. He had been head of the Judenrat in his home village of Zolkiewka in Lublin. With a hardcore of conspirators, Feldhendler considered several possible avenues of escape. The initial plan was to poison the SS and seize their weapons. But vigilant SS guards discovered a secret batch of poison and five Jews were shot in retaliation. Another plan was to set fire to the camp and try and escape during the subsequent confusion. But the mining of the camp perimeter by Wehrmacht engineers following the attempted escape of two Jews made such a plan extremely risky. The plan was eventually rejected as impractical. What Feldhendler and his fellow plotters lacked was organizational ability and who better to possess those skills than soldiers? The answer to Feldhendler’s problems was the arrival at Sobibor on 23 September 1943 of a man called Sasha.
Lieutenant Quartermaster (Class II) Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky was a 34-year-old Jewish Red Army officer who had been captured during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. The son of a lawyer, Sasha was born in the Ukraine, gained a degree in music and literature in Rostov and was working as an accountant and manager of a small music school when he was conscripted into the Red Army as a Junior Lieutenant on 22 June 1941, the day the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. Promoted to Lieutenant in September 1941, Sasha was captured in October at the city of Vyazna. He suffered seven months of typhus before escaping with four other POWs in May 1942. Recaptured the very same day, Sasha was sent to a penal camp in Belorussia, then to another harsh camp near Minsk. During the routine medical examination it was revealed that he was circumcised and Sasha immediately admitted to being a Jew. On 20 August 1942 he was separated from non-Jewish prisoners-of-war and sent to an Arbeitslager in Minsk. On 18 September 1943, 2,000 Minsk Jews, including 100 Jewish Red Army POWs, were herded on to a cattle train and sent to Sobibor, arriving on the 23rd. Sasha was among eighty Jews selected to join the Sonderkommando in Camp II. The sudden and unexpected arrival of prisoners who were trained soldiers provided the conspirators with a considerable morale boost. Perhaps these Russians could help?
Sasha also made an impression on the SS quite early on. He was clearly a man who commanded respect among his peers, and also a proud military officer and no mere slave. Three days after his arrival, Sasha was outside the camp on a working party that was chopping up tree stumps. In command of the party, which was guarded by a detachment of SS–Trawnikis, was SS-Oberscharführer Frenzel. Impatient at the exhausted manner in which the Jews were tending to their tasks, Frenzel had decided to punish certain workers with twenty-five lashes from his whip. Frenzel noticed that Sasha had stopped work during one of these ‘punishments’.
‘Russian soldier,’ shouted Frenzel, ‘you don’t like the way I punish this fool? I give you exactly five minutes to split this stump.’ Frenzel kicked a large tree stump with the toe of his black jackboot. ‘If you make it, you get a pack of cigarettes. If you miss by as much as one second, you get twenty-five lashes,’ said Frenzel, a cruel smile creasing his face.
Sasha attacked the stump with his axe like a madman, Frenzel timing him with his watch. He finished in four-and-a-half minutes. Frenzel, his face a mask of anger, proffered a pack of cigarettes. ‘Thanks, I don’t smoke,’ said Sasha. Frenzel, muttering under his breath, stalked off while the other prisoners continued chopping, astonishment drawn across their sweaty faces. They were even more surprised when Frenzel returned with a lump of bread and some margarine and offered them to Sasha. The big Red Army officer shook his head slowly. ‘Thank you, the rations we are getting satisfy me fully.’ Frenzel’s face turned beetroot red, his fist tightening around his whip handle. He stared at Sasha for a moment, clearly debating in his mind what he should do, while Sasha ignored him and returned to chopping wood. Frenzel once again stalked off. The incident deeply impressed the other members of the working party and that night the proud defiance of the Soviet officer was the talk of the Sonderkommando barracks in Camp I.
It was obvious that the resistance organisation desperately needed someone like Sasha and Feldhendler reached out to him on 29 September. He hoped that Sasha might be able to contact the partisans, many of whom were escaped Soviet POWs, to enlist their aid in liberating the Sobibor Jews. But Sasha was unequivocal in his response. ‘The partisans have their own tasks,’ replied Sasha to Feldhendler, ‘and no one can do our work for us.’ The meaning was clear – if the Jews wanted out of Sobibor, they would have to do all the work themselves. Some of Sasha’s fellow Soviet prisoners were already exploring an escape from the camp, but only for themselves. They were reluctant to let untrained and disorderly foreign civilians join them. But Feldhendler countered that if the Soviet POWs managed to escape the SS would retaliate against the innocent Jewish civilians left behind in the camp. He managed to convince Sasha that any escape should include everybody.
It was decided that it would be better from a security standpoint if the Germans did not see Sasha and Feldhendler constantly meeting. Instead, a young Jew named Shlomo Leitman would act as a go-between for the two leaders. Sasha and his men carefully gathered intelligence on the layout of the camp, the number of guards and their personalities, routines and armament, as well as the all-important perimeter defences. In this, the Jewish civilian members of the Sonderkommando proved invaluable, having been imprisoned in Sobibor for much longer than the Soviets.
The first plan proposed by Sasha was a tunnel. Digging began in early October 1943 beneath the carpenter’s workshops in Camp II. On 7 October, Sasha became very concerned. It was clear that there weren’t enough hours of darkness for all of the camp’s prisoners to successfully pass through the long tunnel to freedom, and he knew that the non-military backgrounds of the civilian workers would probably lead to arguments and fights breaking out amongst those waiting to go. Before Sasha was forced to call off the tunnel break, the diggings were destroyed by two days of very heavy rain on the 8 and 9 October. It was back to the drawing board.
The second plan was a much more dangerous proposition – a revolt. This would involve attacking and overpowering the guards and seizing the camp. Though this appeared to be a tall order, Sasha believed that the key to the plan’s success was to remove the German brain from the larger SS body – that was, to kill the small number of German SS-TV officers and NCOs that administered the camp. It was the same conclusion that was reached by the desperate resisters at Treblinka II. Sasha believed that if the prisoners succeeded, the remaining Ukrainian SS guards would be confused and possibly open to negotiations. If all else failed, the prisoners could fight them with weapons captured off the dead guards, or they could try to storm and capture the camp’s armoury. It was known that the Trawnikis were not completely trusted by the regular SS, and only issued with limited ammunition for their weapons. The gravity of what the prisoners were planning to do was not lost on any of them for a second. ‘We had no dreams of liberation,’ said Thomas Toivi Blatt, ‘we hoped merely to destroy the camp and to die from bullets rather than from gas. We would not make it easy for the Germans.’
The Trawnikis that provided the bulk of the guards in the camp were armed with five-shot bolt-action Mauser 98K rifles, the standard German infantry weapon of the Second World War. The guard towers also contained MG42 machine guns, extremely rapid firing and highly effective belt-fed weapons. The SS-TV men were routinely armed with Luger or Walther P38 semi-automatic pistols and had access to Schmeisser MP40 machine pistols. In response, Sasha asked the prisoners to begin manufacturing large knives and small hatchets. These would be used to dispose of as many of the German SS NCOs as possible in a series of carefully planned ambushes.
The Trawnikis were even more strongly despised than the Germans. ‘We were terrified of the Ukrainian guards at Sobibor,’ said Blatt. ‘They were worse than the Germans. They mistreated us; they shot the old and the sick new arrivals who couldn’t walk anymore. And they were the ones who drove the naked people into the gas chambers with their bayonets.’ Blatt’s job involved cleaning SS boots. ‘They would come back with splashes of blood on their boots. I often had to work a few feet away. If they [the Jews] refused to go on, they hit them and fired shots. I can still remember their shout of ‘Idi suida’, which means ‘come here.’’
Camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Reichleitner left on leave shortly before the revolt. On 12 October, the hated and feared senior SS-TV NCO in the camp, SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, also departed on leave. This was a great relief to everyone. The tall, blond and sadistic Wagner was known to be exceptionally cunning and unrelenting in his efforts to uncover subversive activity among the Sonderkommandos. ‘Wagner’s departure gave us a tremendous morale boost,’ said conspirator Thomas Toivi Blatt. ‘While cruel, he was also very intelligent. Always on the go, he could suddenly show up in the most unexpected places. Always suspicious and snooping, he was difficult to fool. Besides, his colossal stature and strength would make it very difficult for us to overcome him with our primitive weapons.’
With Reichleitner and his chief guard dog Wagner gone, Sasha ordered that the final revolt plan be ready by the end of 12 October. The Soviet POWs were dispatched singly to each of the huts where an ambush killing was to be perpetrated in order to stiffen the resolve of the resisters and to do the actual killing if necessary. Each hut had organised a ‘combat team’ consisting of about three men, with their knives and hatchets carefully concealed. The targeted German officers and NCOs would be lured singly into the huts and then dispatched. Lures included appointments for uniform or boot fittings, or to peruse expensive coats taken from recent transports. ‘The planning took into consideration the German’s brashness and power-hungry mistreatment of the seemingly subdued Jews,’ said Blatt, ‘their consistent and systematic daily routine, their unfaltering punctuality, and their greed.’
The targets were carefully selected. The most important was deputy commandant SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann. In the absence of Reichleitner on leave, Niemann was acting commandant of the camp. Born in 1913, Niemann had joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the SS in 1934. He had served at another Aktion Reinhard camp, Belzec, as an Oberscharführer, commanding Camp II. Transferred to Sobibor, Niemann was commissioned as an officer after Heinrich Himmler’s visit to the camp on 12 February 1943. According to Karl Frenzel, Niemann was a brutal officer. ‘A Polish Kapo [Jewish worker appointed to oversee other Jews] told me that some Dutch Jews were organising an escape, so I relayed it to Deputy Commandant Niemann. He ordered the seventy-two Jews to be executed.’ The Jews were also aided by the fact that almost a dozen SS NCOs were away from the camp on leave when the revolt was launched.
The method for killing the SS was to be as quiet as possible. They were to be axed in the skull or stabbed to death and their bodies quickly hidden. X-day, the day the revolt would be launched, was set for 13 October. But in the morning, Sasha and the rest of the plotters were disconcerted by the sudden arrival in the camp of a company of SS men. There was much confusion among the prisoners, who initially feared that their plot had been discovered and the extra manpower brought in to deal with them. But instead the SS piled out of their trucks and started eating and drinking with the Sobibor SS-TV men in the main canteen. As the extra SS were still in the camp at lunchtime, Sasha decided to postpone the revolt until the following day. Later in the afternoon, the visiting SS company packed up and drove away.
On 14 October everyone was ready. It was now or never. At noon, each battle team commander secretly met with Sasha for final instructions. There was one nasty moment when Frenzel marched into the carpentry shop and noticed that one of the prisoners was dressed in his best clothing. The prisoners had gathered their few possessions ready for the revolt. Unlike Wagner, who would undoubtedly have become suspicious, Frenzel instead sarcastically asked the man whether he was off to a wedding.
At 2pm, SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg, who was not on the target list to be killed, suddenly entered Camp I armed with an MP40 machine pistol. This was unusual, as the SS-TV men rarely carried such firepower. Hochberg took away four prisoners. Sasha discovered that Hochberg was so armed because he hadn’t had with him because of the recent leaves a Ukrainian Trawniki as backup. By 4pm the battle teams were ready and in position.
The first to die was acting commandant Niemann. Once he was dead, his body was quickly dragged into a hiding place and the blood cleaned up. The officer’s loaded Luger pistol was added to the resisters’ meagre stash of weapons. Another prisoner led Niemann’s horse back to the camp stables to complete the illusion of normality.
SS-Scharführer Josef Wolf entered a storeroom shortly after 5pm, lured there by the offer of a nice coat that the prisoners had taken off a transport. As one prisoner helped Wolf into the coat, two others quickly pulled out hatchets and drove them into Wolf’s head, killing him. His body was carefully concealed beneath a pile of clothes, his blood mopped up and his pistol taken. Close by, 33-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Rudolf Beckmann, the head of sorting commands in Camp II, was lured towards a storeroom to view a leather coat. But Beckmann suddenly changed his mind and strode off to his office instead. A little later a combat team entered his office and stabbed him to death with knives. His body was left in a pool of blood on the floor behind his desk.
SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg suddenly appeared in the SS garage and was there killed by the momentarily surprised Jewish prisoners. A major target was the commandant of Camp II, SS-Oberscharführer Göttinger. He was lured into the Shoemakers’ Shop to try on some new jackboots. As he leaned over he was struck in the head with a hatchet and killed.
The NCO in charge of the Ukrainian guards, 27-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Siegfried Graetschus, entered the Shoemakers’ Shop and was axed in the head by Soviet POW Arkady Wajspapir. Soon after, SS-Mann Ivan Klatt, one of the Trawnikis, came into the Shoemakers’ Shop looking for Graetschus, and he was similarly dispatched, his Mauser rifle being added to the pistols that the Jews had now procured from the dead SS. Jews also cut the camp’s telephone and electricity cables to prevent the remaining SS from calling in reinforcements. SS-Scharführer Friedrich Gaulstich was killed in the Carpentry Shop, while SS-Unterscharführer Ernst Stengelin was also dispatched without trouble. So far, everything was progressing perfectly to plan. The alarm had not been raised and the SS were none the wiser.
Around 5pm, the camp prisoners, most of whom had little idea that a revolt was underway, began to assemble on the Appellplatz, the area the Germans used for roll call parades. At 5.10pm Sasha blew an SS whistle, used to summon the prisoners to attention. It was twenty minutes early and the bemused prisoners turned and stared as Sasha stood to address them. ‘Our day has come,’ he shouted. ‘Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honour. Remember, if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here.’
At this point shouting was heard – a Ukrainian guard had discovered the bloody corpse of SS-Oberscharführer Beckmann lying behind his desk. The guard ran out shouting ‘A German is dead!’
Sasha didn’t hesitate and shouted ‘Forward, comrades!’ at the top of his voice. Someone behind him yelled ‘Forward!’ while several others screamed ‘For the Fatherland!’ or ‘For Stalin!’ Although the Jews had managed to kill a total eleven SS men, plus a few of the Trawnikis, Frenzel and the remaining SS quickly armed themselves with Schmeisser machine pistols and opened fire on the prisoners as they attempted to storm the wire.
The prisoners fired back at the Trawnikis manning the gates and guard towers, killing or wounding several, while hundreds flung themselves at the fences, and began to clamber over. The assault on the arms store failed, machine gun fire barring the way. ‘Most of the people who were escaping turned in the direction of the main gate,’ said Sasha. ‘There, after they finished off the guards, under cover of fire from the rifles that a few of them had…[they] broke through the gate and hurried in the direction of the forest.’
‘We rushed to the fence,’ said Philip Bialowitz. ‘We were shooting back as the men in the guard towers were shooting at us with machine guns.’
‘We ran out of the workshop,’ recalled survivor Ada Lichtman. ‘All around were the bodies of the killed and wounded. Some of them were exchanging fire with the Ukrainians, others were running toward the gate or through the fences.’ The SS opened a vigorous fire, shooting down people as they ran or climbed. Many people were killed after getting over the wire when they stepped on landmines. In horrific scenes, hundreds of survivors, many wounded, charged for the forest with German bullets stitching the earth around them.
‘We ran through the exploded mine field holes,’ said Thomas Blatt, ‘and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further…100 yards…50 yards…20 more yards…and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the greyness of the approaching evening, the towers’ machine guns shot their last victims.’
Once in the forest and out of range of the guards, the survivors searched around desperately for friends and relatives before striking off in large groups. But these large groups eventually broke up into smaller and smaller groups as the pressures of searching for food and water took its toll. Sasha initially led a party of about fifty survivors. But on 17 October, he halted the group in the forest and selected several men. They were all armed with Mauser rifles taken from the Trawnikis. Sasha only left one rifle with the main group. Though the people protested at his decision to leave on what he said was a ‘reconnaissance’, they couldn’t stop him and he promised to come back for them. He never did. Sasha, as a soldier, probably realised that trying to feed and protect such a large group was foolhardy, so he took a hardcore of armed men and struck out on their own, giving them a better chance of making it. Some Sobibor survivors never forgave Sasha for abandoning them in the forest in this way.
An estimated 158 Jews were killed by the guards during the revolt, or blown up by mines. The SS, Wehrmacht and Order Police murdered a further 107 during hunts for the escapees. Another 53 died from other causes before the end of the war. There were only 58 known survivors (48 men and 10 women) from Sobibor.
After the revolt the SS decided to close down killing operations at Sobibor. Camp III was disassembled and the remaining Sonderkommandos shot. Furious that the revolt could even have occurred, the SS took further revenge measures against the Jews that were under their control, culminating in the murders of 42,000 in Lublin District three weeks after the revolt in an operation codenamed ‘Erntefest’. The Germans had plans to use the remainder of Sobibor Camp for other purposes, and although they based a small guard detachment of Trawnikis at the site until March 1944, the camp never held any more prisoners.
Leon Feldhendler hid in Lublin until the end of the German occupation in July 1944. He was shot dead in his flat on 2 April 1945 in mysterious circumstances – possibly murdered by a rival Zionist group or the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Thomas Toivi Blatt was initially hidden by a Polish farmer after the escape, but was later shot and wounded by this same farmer. Blatt survived the war, moving to Israel and then the United States. He wrote the book ‘Escape from Sobibor’ in 1983, seeing it turned into a successful film, and two further books on the camp. He is one of a tiny handful of survivors who is still alive and lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Sasha joined the Soviet partisans, sabotaging railway lines, cutting telephone wires and conducting hit-and-run attacks on the Germans. Once the Red Army had occupied Poland, Sasha, like all other Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, was punished on Stalin’s order. He was conscripted into a tough penal battalion and sent to the front. But Sasha’s commanding officer was so shocked by Sasha’s story of what happened at Sobibor that Sasha was sent to Moscow where he spoke before a commission of inquiry. Promoted to captain, Sasha was decorated for gallantry and finally discharged after suffering a foot injury. The Soviets refused to allow him to testify before the Nuremberg Trials and in 1948 Sasha was arrested during a campaign against ‘disloyal Jews’. Stalin’s death in 1953 saved Sasha from further suffering, and he was released. He worked in a small amateur musical theatre. Refused permission by the Soviet authorities to testify at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1960, Sasha died in 1990.
Commandant Karl Reichleitner was transferred to Trieste and Fiume in Italy along with nearly all the Aktion Reinhard death camp personnel where they formed a special SS unit, Sondertruppe R, detailed to fight partisans and murder Jews. Reichleitner was killed at the age of 37 by partisans on 3 January 1944.
The Führersonderzug pulled into Giessen Station in the German state of Hesse, a small, pretty town of large half-timbered houses. There were no adoring crowds awaiting the Führer – instead the platform was carefully guarded by SS. Outside, in the station courtyard stood a fleet of polished midnight-blue Mercedes-Benz limousines and more SS-Begleit-Kommando guards. Hitler stepped slowly down from his Pullman carriage, a black cape over his uniform tunic. It was blustery and cold and the Fuhrer, walking with a slight stoop, headed straight for his car where Erich Kempka, his personal driver for so many years, sat waiting, the engine running. Hitler’s entourage settled themselves into the fleet of cars, turning up their collars against the cold wind. Twenty minutes later the procession of gleaming vehicles swept uphill through the tiny village of Ziegenburg towards a large, gloomy Gothic castle that stood on a hill above the houses, perched atop a lofty promontory. It was 11 December 1944 and Hitler had arrived at the Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Eyrie), his top secret Western Front headquarters. He was happy and excited, for he came with a new plan prepared that he hoped would win him a great victory against the Western Allies. As his car entered a narrow approach tunnel to Kransberg Castle, Hitler felt energized. As he stated to his generals that evening: ‘If forced back on the defensive, it is all the more important to convince the enemy that victory was not in sight.’ At the Adlerhorst he would change the course of the war back into Germany’s favour.
Hitler would have several military headquarters for his campaigns in Western Europe. They were built and used during three specific periods: the German invasion of France and the Low Countries during 1940; the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944; and the Ardennes Offensive of 1944-45. Hitler spent most the war, over 800 days, at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia demonstrating that his strategic focus was primarily upon the monumental fight with the Soviet Union. When not at the Wolf’s Lair he was mostly to be found at his private house, the Berghof, in southern Bavaria. Because of this, his visits to the Western Front were often short affairs. But a considerable amount of money, effort and time was expended in finding and creating suitable headquarters for Hitler and his large entourage, the most significant but perhaps least known of the Führer Headquarters being the Eagle’s Nest in western Germany, hidden as with most of Hitler’s HQs in a gloomy forested area with more than an element of the Brothers Grimm about the place.
On 10 October 1939 Hitler’s first FBB commander, Irwin Rommel, was sent West to find a suitable location for a new Fuhrer Headquarters for the forthcoming campaign against France and the Low Countries. Hitler also dispatched his architect Albert Speer along with the Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition, Dr. Fritz Todt, to help with the search.
Speer and Todt recommended Kransberg Castle in Langenhain-Ziegenberg, 22 miles (35km) from Frankfurt-am-Main. The castle, looking like something out of a fairytale, sits in the densely wooded Taunus Mountains and was codenamed ‘A’ for ‘Adlerhorst’ (Eagle’s Eyrie) by the Nazis. Originally constructed in 1170, the castle had fallen into disrepair by the mid-19th century. Extensively remodelled in the 1870s it was given a neo-gothic makeover in line with the then fashion for Germanic myth and legend. Acquired in 1926 by Austrian noblewoman Emma von Scheitheim, she used the castle for entertaining and society events until, in 1939, the government seized it for military purposes.
This was to be Hitler’s showpiece headquarters for the campaign in the West and no expense was spared. Incredibly, the local villagers who lived below the Castle in Ziegenberg do not appear to have realized that it was now a Fuhrer Headquarters. The Germans kept the secret well, using labour that was brought into the area to complete the building work. As far as locals were concerned, Kransberg Castle was just another military installation during a time of war. The castle was extensively renovated and seven concrete bunkers that were disguised as half-timbered cottages were built in the grounds. These were connected with extensive underground bunkers in turn were themselves connected with the main castle by tunnels. But when Hitler visited the site he rejected it as too luxurious and not in keeping with his image as a simple and frugal leader. He was particularly worried that after the war his loyal disciples would visit the castle as a kind of shrine and be dismayed to find out that their beloved Führer lived in such opulent surroundings while they suffered air raids and food shortages. Hitler demanded a different headquarters on a more modest scale.
The Adlerhorst would not be used until 1944, when Hitler finally moved in to direct the Ardennes Offensive, but although mothballed for the time being the site nonetheless still had to be carefully protected. Speer modified the complex for use by the Luftwaffe as their HQ for Operation ‘Sealion’, the planned invasion of Britain in 1940. After Hitler cancelled Sealion the castle was used as a recuperation centre for wounded German soldiers and as a private retreat for the corpulent Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring.
Hitler’s RSD commander, Johann Rattenhuber, provided nineteen of his men to guard the Adlershorst complex, plus 106 military policemen – a considerable use of resources to guard an empty headquarters. This activity served as a useful distraction from Hitler’s real HQ, the considerably more basic ‘F’ or ‘Felsennest’ (Mountain Nest) that was occupied at Rodert near the town of Munstereifel, 22 miles (35km) southwest of Bonn and only 28 miles (45km) from the Belgian frontier.
At the Felsennest, Hitler took over an already existing site that consisted of some anti-aircraft positions and a few wooden huts. Engineers built catwalks between the buildings so that Hitler and his officers did not have to wade through mud, renovated the existing structures, put up security fences and gates, and built some small bunkers and air raid shelters. Hitler’s personal bunker was very small. It consisted of one room that he could use for meetings and military briefings plus a modest bedroom, bathroom, bedrooms for Keitel and adjutant Schaub, one manservant and a kitchen. ‘Jodl, Dr. Brandt, Schmundt, Below [Luftwaffe aide], Puttkamer [naval aide], and Keitel’s adjutant were in a second [bunker]. The rest had to be accommodated in the nearby village.’ But the headquarters was in keeping with Hitler’s simple nature, and importantly it reinforced his own image of the straightforward and frugal leader.
Hitler returned to the Western Front in June 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings in Normandy. His headquarters for his short visit was Wolfsschlucht II near Margival in France. He flew to Metz aboard his personal Condor aircraft on 16 June and then travelled by motorcade through the early hours of 17 June to his conference with Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt and Rommel, his two Western Front commanders. The Fuhrer’s safety when airborne was assured by the grounding of all Luftwaffe aircraft along the route and an order that no German anti-aircraft batteries would be permitted to open fire. It should be noted that by this stage of the war Hitler was taking a considerable risk still travelling by air because the Allies had managed to achieve almost complete aerial superiority over Western Europe.
The meeting with von Rundstedt and Rommel was deeply acrimonious, Hitler blaming them for their failure to force the Allies back into the sea at Normandy. They first had lunch together. Hitler watched as his special vegetarian food was tasted for him before eating any himself. Two RSD officers stood behind Hitler’s chair, their faces hard and their eyes constantly scanning the Führer’s lunch companions. Rommel told Hitler that in his opinion the German Army would collapse in France, as well as in Italy, and Hitler should end the war as soon as possible. An air raid alert forced the group underground into Hitler’s personal air raid shelter. Hitler was due to visit Army Group B front headquarters at the Chateau of La Roche-Guyon on 19 June but Hitler had suddenly departed for Germany on the night of the 17th. The reason for this was the impact of a brand new V1 flying bomb on the headquarters at Margival that night. V1 launches against London had begun on 12 June and by the 15th over 500 of these primitive cruise missiles were being launched daily. One malfunctioned and landed on Führer Headquarters, frightening Hitler enough that he decided to return to Germany and from there take his personal train back to his Eastern Front headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair.
Hitler came West once again on 11 December 1944 when his personal train arrived at Giessen Station in Hesse where a fleet of armoured Mercedes took him and his party to the Adlerhorst, the command complex that had been built several years before adjacent to Kransberg Castle. Although Hitler had previously refused to use the complex, complaining that it was too luxuriously appointed, by December 1944 he required a large headquarters base with excellent communications and a co-located army high command facility for the forthcoming Ardennes Offensive. His other Western Front headquarters were none of these things. The Eagle’s Eyrie was the only Führer Headquarters in the West that met these criteria and so preparations had been made for Hitler’s arrival.
The Adlerhorst consisted of seven large “cottages” set in a heavily wooded compound beyond Kransberg Castle’s main entrance. In reality, each cottage was in fact a large two-storey concrete bunker that was disguised to look like a typical “Fachwerk” or half-timbered wooden cottage.
Although constructed of concrete with walls 3 feet (0.91m) thick, the second storey included fake dormer windows with flower baskets under a sloped tiled roof. The interiors of the bunkers were kept simple, as befitting Hitler’s personal taste. They were furnished in traditional German style, with oak floors, pine wall panelling, functional brown leather furniture, wall lamps, and wall hangings depicting hunting scenes or Teutonic battles, and deer antlers.
Haus I was the Führer’s personal bunker. The decoration and furnishings were not embellished in any way. Haus II was also known as the “Casino”, a German military term for an officers’ mess. It consisted on a lounge and a café on the ground floor with bedrooms on the first floor. An entrance to the bunker below gave access to a secure situation room and communications centre outfitted with radio transmitters and Enigma coding machines. The Casino was connected to the Führerbunker by a short covered walkway so that Hitler could stay out of the elements.
Haus III was occupied by a section of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command – OKW) and was the residence of the commanding general. At various times this building housed Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt, Albert Kesselring and Wilhelm Keitel as well as Reichsmarschall Göring and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl.
Haus IV was known as the “Generals’ House” and was used by second echelon general staff, for example Hasso von Manteuffel, Ferdinand Schorner and Heinz Guderian.
Haus V was occupied by a section of Dr. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry while Reich Ministers and very senior Nazi officials including Martin Bormann, Alfred Rosenberg and Robert Ley used Haus VI. The final cottage, Haus VII, was known as the “Wachhaus” and was the largest of the seven. It housed Hitler’s adjutants, bodyguards, personal secretaries and housekeeping staff. This building was connected to Kransberg Castle, as we have seen already previously converted into a secure army headquarters complex, by a 0.5-mile (0.8 km) long tunnel.
The largest building in the Adlerhorst complex was called the Kraftfahrzeughalle (Motor Pool Garage) and this was located in the village below Kransberg Castle. It housed the armoured Mercedes limousines used by Hitler and his henchmen as well as fire engines, busses and ambulances. There was also Fachwerk-style accommodation for the families of personnel working at the Adlerhorst.
The entire site was carefully guarded, with disguised concrete guard bunkers covering all approaches and a network of anti-aircraft batteries sited around the surrounding hills. Above the Castle, located to the north in the hills, was a disguised Wehrmacht depot that housed additional army units for the defence of the Adlerhorst.
Hitler would use the Eagle’s Eyrie between December 1944 and January 1945 during the Ardennes Offensive, his last gamble in the West. The Adlerhorst became Hitler’s last field HQ after the abandonment of the Wolf’s Lair to the advancing Soviets. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, moved into Kransberg Castle in October 1944 in preparation for the coming offensive but when Hitler arrived by train at the Adlerhorst on 11 December, von Rundstedt and his headquarters moved forward to near Limburg in Belgium.
On the morning of 15 December Hitler hosted a planning conference to discuss the Ardennes operation attended by von Rundstedt, Keitel, Jodl and Gunther Blumentritt and the ground commanders including von Manteuffel and Sepp Dietrich. Many of these top commanders didn’t even know of the existence of the Adlerhorst and before they had arrived they had been driven in an SS bus on a long and circuitous route through the mountains to deliberately confuse them about the headquarters location.
After Christmas 1944 Hermann Göring arrived and took up residence inside the Castle. It was at a briefing inside Haus II that the Reichsmarschall destroyed his relationship with Hitler after he suggested, in light of the evident failure of the Ardennes offensive, that Hitler seek a truce with the Allies through neutral Swedish contacts. Hitler flew into a rage and threatened to have Göring placed before a court martial and shot.
On New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1944, Hitler made a rare radio broadcast to the German people before going to Haus I to welcome in 1945 with his close intimates including Bormann, Dr. Dietrich and two of his secretaries, Traudl Junge and Christina Wolf. Two inches of snow had fallen, giving the Castle and the surrounding pine forest a pretty and festive aspect. Hitler’s Austrian dietician, Constanze Manziarly, had laid out a buffet and there were chilled bottles of Mosel-Sekt.
Whilst Hitler was preoccupied with the Ardennes Offensive, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff of the Army, had visited the Adlerhorst on several occasions trying in vain to warn Hitler of the growing Soviet threat on Vistula River south of Warsaw. Intelligence summaries suggested that in the predicted main assault areas the Red Army would outnumber the Germans by 11-to-1 in men, 7-to-1 in tanks and 20-to-1 in guns. Hitler rubbished the intelligence and refused to transfer divisions east.
At 4am on 1 January 1945 Hitler attended a conference in Haus II to discuss his counter offensive in the West, Operation North Wind. Launched at midnight, the counter offensive ran out of steam by 25 January 1945 when it became clear that Germany had lost the battle and in the process used up its last remaining reserves of manpower and equipment. Also on 1 January Guderian attended another meeting with Hitler where he continued to plead for to transfer of forces east, before it was too late. Hitler only permitted the transfer of four divisions, and promptly ordered them to Hungary instead of the threatened sectors of the front.
On 9 January Guderian was back at the Adlerhorst, pestering Hitler again about the Eastern Front. At this time Hitler’s great offensive in the west was faltering, and Hitler flew into a rage, refusing to transfer divisions or even to consider permitting exposed German formations to pull back to more defensible positions. It was at this point that Guderian made his famous remark: ‘The Eastern Front is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point, all the rest will collapse.’
On 15 January, with the western campaign virtually ended and with increasing signs of an imminent Soviet assault across the Vistula, Hitler left the Adlerhorst for the last time. As he was leaving aboard his train, one wit among his staff pointed out that ‘Berlin was preferential as a headquarters; it would soon be possible to travel from there both to the eastern and western front by suburban railway.’ Apparently Hitler actually laughed. He had probably been encouraged to move out of the Adlerhorst not only by the obvious failure of his offensive in the West and by the imminent Soviet onslaught from the East, but also by another close call with death.
On 6 January a RAF Lancaster bomber, possibly in trouble, jettisoned a huge Blockbuster Bomb over Ziegenburg, the town that lay at the foot of Kransberg Castle. The late-war Blockbuster, known to the RAF as the “Cookie”, was the largest conventional bomb used by any of the Allied air forces and was packed with 12,000-lbs (5.4 tonnes) of Amatol high explosive and they were designed to level entire city blocks with one strike. One bomber crew recorded that when they dropped one into the centre of Koblenz the tremendous explosion damaged their Lancaster flying at 6,000 feet (1,829m). The explosion at Ziegenburg, which was not densely populated or built-up, killed four civilians, wrecked the local church and caused extensive damage to surrounding houses. If the bomb had landed on the Führerbunker Hitler could have conceivably been killed. Hitler returned to Berlin on 16 January 1945 aboard his private train, the Führersonderzug.
The Western Allies thought that Hitler was still at the Adlerhorst, his headquarters beneath Kransberg Castle, and they determined to try and kill him. Although Hitler had already been gone for two months, on 19 March 1945 a squadron of P-51 Mustangs launched a precision attack on Kransberg Castle and its environs, dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs that killed ten civilians and did huge damage to both the Castle and surrounding buildings. The Adlerhorst was still functioning as a headquarters at the time of the raid. On 11 March the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief West, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, had moved into the Castle with his large staff. He immediately ordered that all sensitive documentation and cipher machines be removed from the Castle, after which he moved with his staff into Haus III, the purpose-built OKW command bunker at the Adlerhorst. Kesselring and his staff escaped harm during the 45-minute American air raid.
By 28 March, with US forces only 12 miles (19 km) from the Adlerhorst, Kesselring ordered the evacuation by means of all the remaining motor transport of civilian employees and the families of soldiers who were serving at the headquarters. He then ordered that the Adlerhorst complex should be blown up. This was only partially successful. When the US Army arrived they discovered that the Führerbunker and several other structures had been reduced to burned-out shells, but two buildings were captured intact. The first was HausV or ‘Pressehaus’, used by Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry. The second was the largest building on the site, HausVII, the ‘Wachhaus’ with its long concrete tunnel that connected directly with the Castle.